After The Summer Holidays
As we and our students return to school from the summer break, one of the most obvious conversation starters in the new term is ‘Where did you go during the holidays?’ Moreover, one of the most tangible benefits of learning English is the ability to communicate with others in a common language wherever in the world you happen to be. During the summer many of our students will have had good reason to try out the English they have learned during the past year. It might even be fundamental to a few continuing romances!
In this article, we will look at how travel and a little bit of geography can influence and inspire work in English. We will present a few geographical facts and figures that could be incorporated into English lessons and suggest a few geographically based activities you might want to use in the English classroom.
English As A World Language
As of 2019, there were 59 sovereign states and 27 non-sovereign entities around the world where English was an official language. Strangely, The United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, are not included on this list despite being where the majority of native English speakers actually live, because they don’t see the need to legally recognise English as an official language. Would your students be able to guess which countries do appear on the list? They might think about Ireland, India and South Africa but they are less likely to think about Namibia, The Philippines or Zimbabwe. Perhaps this could form the basis of a quiz or a research project. The full updated list can easily be found online.
As a matter of interest, if you widen the list to include all countries where English is spoken as a first, second or extra language, the number of countries included is far bigger and includes more than half the world’s population. Some of you will know from personal experience that even in China where English is not an official language, there is a huge emphasis on learning English as a means to engage with the world in trade and diplomacy. In fact, China has the largest education system in the world which includes English as part of the curriculum; with 260 million students and over 15 million teachers in about 514 000 schools. This does not include the growing number of private language schools that operate in China.
Around The World Connections
Moving beyond countries where English is widely spoken or taught, I wonder if you can spot the connection between Japan, Iraq and Iran? Or perhaps you can work out what Germany, Mexico and India have in common? (The answer will be at the end of the article).
One aspect of geography that provides a great deal of scope for the English teacher is the act of travel itself. How do you get from A to B; from Paris to London, from your home to the airport? What means of transport will you use? Which route is the fastest? Cheapest? Most Expensive? Where and how will you buy your tickets? What vocabulary will you need to use? How many aspects of English grammar has this short paragraph alluded to already?
Buying tickets for a train or plane provides many opportunities to utilise dialogues and role plays. This activity can be done in stages according to the ability level of your students. You might begin with a short dialogue between a passenger and a ticket clerk. This could be handed out on paper or written up on the board. After explaining any new vocabulary, get the students to practice the dialogue in pairs. Encourage them to ‘get into the part’ using natural intonation and correct pronunciation. Then take the written dialogue away. If you have the dialogue written on the board, try removing keywords and sentences but leaving some of the structure there to aid the student’s memories. The students then continue the dialogues from memory. In the next stage add a few changes or problems that could occur in the dialogue. Perhaps a platform change. Maybe the ticket machine doesn’t accept cash. Perhaps the price of the ticket varies with time. Get the students to improvise aspects of the dialogue where the changes occur. Finally, translate the dialogue into a free-flowing role play. Assign half the class the role of ticket clerks and give them the basic information they will need. Get the other students to take on the role of passengers. You might give each passenger a different task or objective; for example, ‘You have to get from London to Canterbury before midday but you only have £X to spend’. For older or more advanced students you might think of similar scenarios at an airport or on board a ship. You can extend the activity to include other aspects of planning a trip or booking accommodation.
Researching A Location
There are many activities that can revolve around researching a location and planning a trip there. What is the place? What attractions, amenities or facilities are there? How will you get there? What will you do when you get there? What is there to see and do? How much will it cost? Perhaps you could plan a weekend sightseeing itinerary.
When researching a country for any activity, encourage students to explore alternative sources of information beyond Wikipedia. You might suggest they start with the CIA World Factbook which is a very good reference point and some of your students might enjoy getting information from one of the world’s most famous spy agencies!
Of course, students could also do research (individually or in groups) in order to produce a project or presentation about a particular country or place. Such presentations could focus on the geography and climate of the place they are studying. This may involve a lot of specialised vocabulary to describe features of the landscape and local environment which will add difficulty to the task. Alternatively, the students could focus on the history, culture and traditions of the area they are studying.
Building and Making
For younger students building or making something and then talking about it can be a nice alternative to a straightforward presentation. We have probably all seen versions of a paper-mache volcano built in class. Perhaps our students could build their own versions of The Leaning Tower Of Piza, the Egyptian Pyramids or anything else they have seen during their holidays or on TV. Another option would be to create a travel-based board game, complete with rules which can be shared and played in the class.
Countries and geographical subjects make excellent topics for quizzes of various types. At the most basic level, the teacher can set a quiz to test what the students have learned. However, there is much more ‘Use of English’ when the students have to devise a quiz themselves. They would no doubt enjoy setting up a quiz on an internet platform such as Kahoot or Quizlet which most students are familiar with these days. Without technology, you could organise a game of ‘Where am I?’ In this, the students have to describe a place in three sentences which the other members of the class have to guess. The first sentence, which is quite difficult or general, is for three points. For example; This city once had the largest population in Europe. The next sentence makes things a little easier for two points. For example; ‘A famous river runs through the city.’ The final clue for one point makes things quite clear. For example; The most famous landmark is The Eiffel Tower.
For more advanced students the basic idea of the quiz described above can be incorporated into a dialogue/role play activity in which pairs of students act out a dialogue which includes some clues and then the rest of the class guess where they are.
Geography and travel are great subjects for information sharing and mingling activities. Each student is given a different piece of information about a country or place to learn and memorise. (It should be something short and simple such as the capital city or a typical food of the country). The students then mingle around the class sharing their knowledge with each other in order to complete a grid of information about the chosen location. It may be necessary to insist that they speak to each other and form grammatically correct questions in order to elicit the facts they need. The first person or group to find all the information they need and note it down correctly are the winners. There could also be a quick quiz to check the rest of the class has completed their grids correctly.
Pronunciation and Word Stress
Did you guess the answer to the question posed earlier in the article? (The connection between Japan, Iraq and Iran; or between Germany, Mexico and India). It has to do with word stress. Grouping countries according to how syllables are stressed can be an interesting English class activity. Japan, Iraq and Iran follow the stress pattern ‘oO’. Germany, Mexico and India follow the stress pattern ‘Ooo’. (ja-PAN=oO GER-man-ee= Ooo). Try writing other syllable stress patterns on the board and see how many countries the students can find that follow the same pattern. Other common patterns include Oo = EE-gypt, oOo = zim-BUB-way, ooO = vee-et-NAM, and, oOoo = oss-TRAY-lee-ah. You can do similar activities based on the languages spoken in various countries such as ooO = por-tu-GEEZ. For younger students, we would suggest clapping out or chanting the various rhythms. This could also lead into some simple poetry or songwriting activities.
Literature And Writing
Finally, there is a great deal of literature which has travel or geographical connection. ‘Around The World in Eighty Days’ by Jules Verne could provide some lively texts for reading comprehension or gap text work. There are plenty of more modern books and articles on the theme of travel that could also be used or adapted in the English class. How many could your students think of? And, while they might be old standbys, ‘What I did in my holidays,’ and ‘A country I would like to visit,’ are still useful essay titles. If your students have been studying a particular country as part of a project or perhaps in their official geography lessons, you could ask them to describe the daily life of a person of their own age who lives there. You might even be able to set up an exchange of letters with students of that country, using English as the means of communication.
Travel and communication with people all over the world are two of the most tangible reasons for students to improve their English. As English teachers, we should make the most of these themes. We may be back at school but the world is our oyster!