Archive for ‘Lesson Plans’

August 28, 2012

“My English name is Smacker! ” (Fun video clip from sexy beijing)

Name and naming practices have a cultural context. Naming someone in English in an english-speaking environment will be different from naming someone in English in a non-English speaking environment, such as in China. So, why do many Chinese people adopt an English name? This video clip from the series Sexy Beijing (a parody of Sex and the City) provides interesting insights. All in all, language is a tool for social functions. English names in China have a range of functions beyond the mere provision of an identifier.

Use in the classroom:  show the video after practicing “greetings” and “asking about names” and other such typical first weeks of class items (first-semester level). the repeated question-answer sequences provide listening practice and grammar reinforcement. Then students can discuss whether they have a Chinese name or not, what their name means, and what is the story behind the name (heritage learners will have a different story from non-heritage learners, typically).

Then the teacher can provide additional cultural discussions with 1) the quora thread by clicking this link:

And 2) Deborah Fallows’ Dreaming in Chinese“, Chapter 6, A brief introduction to Chinese names”. See a review of the book in New York Times here.

Students can use this worksheet to choose a Chinese name: Your_Chinese_Name

(if you use or like these ideas and the handout, could you leave a comment or click the “like” button? 🙂 Thanks!)

July 31, 2012

First-day of class, find someone who…

“Find someone who…” is a classic activity in the second/foreign language classroom. When students share a first language, it is fine to conduct this activity in the students’ first and shared language. So the focus will be on the students’ background knowledge and interest about the target language and build a language-learning community.

Below is a template for a “find someone who…” activity that can be used in a heritage or non-heritage class with tweaks:

Find someone who   (word doc)    (click it and you will see the link to download the word document)

Find someone who   (pdf)  (click it and you will see the link to download the pdf version of the same document)

January 23, 2012

Journey of the Noodle (video to supplement textbook and for communicative practice)

《面条之路》  (This is part 1 of a 6 parts TV series about the noodle, its history, its wide varieties in China and around the world and mouth-watering noodle dishes!)

Teaching ideas:

Target levels and students: intermediate to advanced; heritage or non-heritage/advanced.

How: as the video is 50 minutes, it is best assigned as homework with accompanying worksheet or writing assignment. But show the clip for about 10 minutes in class so students have a “taste” of it and you can clarify the context and contents of the video.

If you work with a textbook, this unit is a good supplement to provide cultural knowledge and communicative practices (listening, discussion and writing) for a learning unit that deals with culinary traditions in China.

a.before showing this video in class or assigning this video as homework, have students brainstorm 6 noodle-like food items/dishes from 6 different cultures (such as: 中国四川的担担面; 北方的杂酱面; 广东的馄饨面; 山西的烩面; 美国的鸡汤面; 意大利的通心粉, 千层面).  Prepare a number of images representing these noodle dishes in case students don’t recall these easily or do not have the Chinese words for these canonical food items.

b. have students watch this clip in class or as homework. Students write down 6-10 new Chinese words they learned while watching this clip. Students log these words in their vocabulary log-book. Next class teacher can use 5-minutes in class to exchange vocabulary.

c. what worksheet or homework to assign:   possible ideas:

1) each student or groups of students, are assigned a particular segment of the video to write a summary/recap, and note down one thing that they did not know before watching the video. Be read to share ideas in class.

2) each student or groups of students study a particular dish in terms of how it is made by the following categories: ingredients; methods/procedure; sample food images. do a presentation of their findings, by poster, by blog entry, or at, or using photstory3 as a form of digital story-telling.

3) students create a class noodle recipe book (a noodle dish that they want to learn to make, or a noodle dish that is their favorite comfort food).

January 10, 2012

Warm-up activities for speaking

Below is a template for a speaking activity, usually good for Monday or first day after a holiday break:

In groups of three or two, students draw a picture of what they did in the past. Others have to guess at what they did from only looking at the picture. (ideas from Brian Hampson and Shane Dunkle)

Modifications: a more teacher-centered activity, teacher draws numbers, pictures and other images that seem random but represent what teacher did over the break. Students have to guess.

Modification to suit the topic about describing dormitory life: students draw pictures representing happy moments of living in a dorm and bad moments of living in a dorm (or change it to “living at home”). Others have to look at the picture and guess.

January 9, 2012

Discussion work on first-day of class after winter break

Not all speaking activities work, for different reasons. Borrowing Tolstoy’s truism, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” good speaking activities are all alike; every “unhappy” speaking activity is unhappy in its own way.

Lately a teacher talked to me about her first-day of class. She was a very very good teacher, creative and resourceful. She was puzzled and disconcerted with three Chinese-heritage students in her class who sat together in class, talked when not required to talk and kept silent when required to do interaction work.

For this particular lesson we discussed: first day of class after  the winter break. a warm-up activity where students sat in groups to  (while speaking Chinese) find out: three things all members of the group did over the break, and three different things they each did and not shared by other members in the class.

Sounds pretty good, an information gap activity. But for advanced-levels when students have surpassed the threshold of iterating simple facts, the task is not as challenging and motivating. And when the topic is about winter break, things we do during breaks are quite similar and no suspence which may prompt no incentive to talk.

When we plan the task, we anticipate what students may say in response to the topic. For this particular topic, likely students say “I ate. I ate too; I slept. I slept a lot; me too; I watched movies–here the topic may become interesting, but students, if not prompted by teacher, rarely go beyond “me too”. “I skiiled.” I did it in colorado. I did it in Wisconsin.” Then, moments of silence. Looking at teacher. Hoping for the activity to end.

My reflection: if the task involves narrative and story-telling, the instrinc motivation for telling a story is that it is worth-telling (see Ochs and Capps’s book titled Living Narrative).

So, perhaps, if we change the topic of discussion to:

  • Talk about things you did but had never wanted to do.  不想做却做了的.
  • Talk about things you didn’t do but had really wanted to do.  想做又没做的.

The answer is unpredictable and draws on a story-worthy juxtaposition. The task is still pretty simple and suitable for short warm-up activity.

When we design unfocused speaking task (meaning that we are not using the speaking task for students to use a particuar language form, such as the past tense, the “de” structure” etc. Reference: Rod Ellis [2003]), the topic has to elicit something worth-telling, affective, with personal involvement.

For example, I list below some typical speaking tasks in the language classroom and suggest modification for the task to be more fun for advanced learners:

practicing saying numbers and digits

traditional drills: using cards with numbers and have students say them out loud.  Or the teacher says the numbers and studnets write them down.

modification—> studnets pretending to be at a ball/banquet and are having fun. Then the loudspeaker (a student plays the role of the MC) begins to say a string of numbers (they are licence plate numbers of unsuitably parked cars which will be towed if not moved.) Every student is given a card in advance which bears one of these imaginary licence plates. Students naturally pay attention to listening for their number and repeat to check if they heard it correctly. The unclaimed cars will be towed. Haha.

talk about poet Li Bai

traditional activity: Li Bai a typical cultural topic in the Chinese heritage class and advanced foreign language class. But I guess students don’t quite see the point of reading the poem “the moon light at my bedside, is like frost on the ground”–the poem is beguilingly simple, even plain.

modification: — > select a poem by Li Bai that has a bit more “flare” for the students’ age and temperament, such as the poem where he danced with the moon or tried to scoop the moon out of the river. Instead of explaining the poem, we could show the poem in Chinese, juxtaposed with an English version as translated by the google translation tool (the translation is guaranteed to be hilarious). Students can discuss why the translation is not correct, and how best to translate the original poem. This exercise will incoporate cultural topic, will let students see that google translation has its limitation,  while using the target language to communicate (the idea of “languaging”).

Describing a room

traditional task: at around 2nd-year of a basic language program, students will learn to talk about housing, interior of a house, furniture, domitory living Typical speaking tasks are role-plays and picture-description.

modification: 1) identifying differences between two otherwise very identical images of a room–newspapers and children’s books tend to feature such puzzle activity. Save some of them and they make good picture-prompt for practicing room-description.

2) detail-recall. students are shown pictures of a room for seconds. Then they compete to see who recalls the most details of the room, with accuracy (and using fully formulated sentences).  The pictures may also include some unnoticable details (such as a cat under the kitchen table). Children’s books are full of household items and good as prompts, such as the following timeless classics.

These two books are: If you give a pig a pancake. If you give a mouse a cookie.

December 27, 2011

New York City’s “Tweed-Run:” Linking fashion to language teaching, perhaps?

Just as Sherlock Holmes is universally loved, the fashion of the bygone time is universally appealing.

Since clothes and ways of dressing are staple components of the foreign language curriculum, is it possible for the classroom to use fashion as input and engage students in something more fun, more beautiful, and richer in meaning?

For example, this video (click the link to watch) by New York Times’ lengendary Bill Cunningham is a report and reflection on a “tweed-run” in New York City (sponsored by Ralph Lauren) where city dwellers gathered for a bicycle-run, dressed in fashion pieces of the 30s, 40s and 50s (tweed jackets, caps, bow-ties, luggage-colored leather oxfords), and drinking tea in real tea-ware. The video can’t be embedded here but the few images I cropped from the video show a glimpse of how lovely the concept is.

The potential for the classroom is obvious:

1) the format of presentation (in the Bill Cunningham video) is something that is often used in the language classroom–powerpoints with narration, which is now easily done at such sites as and tools in Learning Management Systems such as wimba voice presentation. The video provides a model of how to build a 2-minute voice presentation centering on an interesting theme. The narration part of the voice presentation is a good outlet for building fluency and speaking skills.

2) the concept is interesting and is authentic input with many legs: a theme (vintage clothes, fashion of the bygone times, individual styles and personal fashion pieces) to provoke discussoin, potential for practice with comparison and contrast language skills, images for vocabulary building about clothes, easily motivating a language learning task (explaining one’s favorite clothes items, something in the wardrobe that’s meaningful, interviewing others about fashion pieces, or web-based research on fashion of bygone times).

But the nitty-gritty of how to incorporate the authentic input in the classroom and build an intergrated lesson unit is a daunting task. there has to be sufficiuent teasing-apart of the input with good discussion prompts and vocabulary support, and sufficient practice with form and relevant linguistic skills before the output stage.

I leave this post as an idea to be followed up in a later post with more concrete steps and materials.

December 20, 2011

Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern (Chengdu -China Episodes): Sample Lesson Outline

The Travel Network’s hit show, Bizarre Foods, has episodes shot in Chengdu, Beijing and Hong Kong. Although  the show is in English, the rich images, authentic food locales, cultural contexts, and the cross-cutural perspective, provide authentic materials that will spark lively discussions and motivate food-themed project work.

Suggestion: if the learners are young adults (or children), or are animal-rights activists, the episodes may not be appropriate, or should best be situated in introduction of a variety of countries and cultures which all have their share of “bizarre foods” and some discussion on cultural pluralism. The teacher may also pick-choose clips that are “tamer” and leave learners to explore the rest of the show on their own.

Below I provide a rough lesson outline using the first 15-minutes of the Chengdu episode. At the end of the blog, you will find links to the video clips of the Chengdu episode, the Hong Kong episode, and the Beijing episode.

Sample Lesson (for advanced proficiency or heritage learners of Chinese), to be conducted in Chinese


Ask students to give examples of foods that they, or someone they know, have eaten and may be classified as “bizarre” for themselves or from others’ perspective. Based on what students say, the teacher writes on the board names of the food items given. Teacher needs to prepare her own answer as she may need to use her example to encourage participation.

Ask students to rank the food items listed on the board according to a “bizarre-ness” scale, “零” being the least bizarre, “十” being the most bizarre.

Ask students to compare their lists with each other. The class is likely to differ on the answers, but generate a consensus as what’s most bizarre and what’s least.

–Transition to Main Topic

Now segui to the actual video. Ask the class if anyone has watched the show called “Bizarre Foods”. Ask how this title should be translated in Chinese. Follow up on the answer: e.g. what episodes students have watched, whether they liked the show, who the host is, and other basic show-related questions.

Explain that the show has shot an episode in Chengdu. Write the pinyin and character of “Chengdu” on the board. Generate knowlege from class regarding Chengdu: where it is located (bring a map if you have it handy); weather conditions there; language spoken; food characteristics (this could be done in a very quick game-show like activity).

Ask the class to list a number of food items that they think will be featured on the show;  write the words on the board.

Watch the first 5 minutes or so of the show. Provide a vocabulary list that gives Chinese names of items featured on the clip.

Discussion ensues. Most likely, the teacher uses the chance to clarify items portrayed on the show and explain cultural notions. Assign students to watch the rest of show, and provide homework:

-Ideas for produtive-skill building homework assignments:

Speaking: 1) using; ask students to work individually or in group to create a presentation of bizarre food items from a particular episode of the show (of a country of their choice). The images come from the show but they add Chinese narration. 2) using, ask students to create, in a mock clip as Andrew Zimmern’s “5 top moments”, their version of the 5 most memorable or impressive moments” of the episode they watched, including their Chinese narration.

2) wiki–collaborative writing. If your writing assignments regularly involve wiki (useful in a heritage language class), possible topics are:

  • assign students to explore foods of major areas in China and write introductory wiki pages.
  • assign students to collaboratively generate a synposis of the episodes involving Beijing, Hong Kong and Chengdu, each group covering one episode.

3) essay where students begin with a summary of the episode and and focus on commentary of

  • why a food item may be plain and common in the local context ,but bizarre for an outsider;
  • what are some of the common features of foods that are considered bizarre across different cultures.

Video resources


Hong Kong: