Anecdote activities

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Sue Kay

Before you read this article, spend a few minutes doing this short task.

Are you sitting comfortably? Slip your shoes off, relax your shoulders and switch off the voice in your head.

Now think back to a really good lesson you've given recently. Use these questions to help you remember some of the details.

  • How many students were in the class?
  • What was the average age?
  • Were they mostly male or female students or a mixture?
  • What level were they?
  • What was the classroom like?
  • What was the view from the window?
  • How were the students seated?
  • What time of day was it?
  • How were you feeling?
  • What were you teaching?
  • What did the students have to do?
  • What was so good about the lesson?

You may have answered the last question in one of the following ways:

  • My students were genuinely interested.
  • They were so involved that they didn't notice the bell go.
  • They talked non-stop for ages.
  • They seemed to get a lot out of the lesson.
  • I couldn't shut them up.

In my experience, teachers get excited about a lesson when they feel that their students have communicated on a level that goes beyond 'going through the motions', when they have engaged with the topic on a personal level. The 'anecdote activities' that I am going to describe create conditions for personal engagement by encouraging students to talk about things that matter to them, rather than playing roles or exchanging invented information.

What are Anecdote Activities?

Teachers often ask students for a personal response to something they have just read or listened to. For example,

  • Tell your partner what you think about the clockwork radio.
  • Do you think Julian was punished appropriately? Discuss with a partner.

These are usually short exchanges and a nice way of rounding off a lesson or part of a lesson. An anecdote activity, on the other hand, is an extended speaking activity which provides an opportunity for students to tackle a longer piece of discourse and to develop their speaking skills.

Setting Them Up

Anecdote topics need to be meaningful to virtually all your students. They should be subjects about which most people have something to say: a film they've seen, a close friend, a journey, an evening out in a restaurant or a childhood memory. However, even though the topics are universal, many students will find it difficult to think of what to say on the spur of the moment. They may not be able to elaborate without some kind of framework to follow; they will need to have their memories jolted, their ideas "activated".

This is achieved in the anecdote activity by careful preparation of a series of leading questions designed to trigger ideas. You were asked some such questions in the activity at the beginning of this article. Ten to twelve questions are ideal. For example, these might be the leading questions for an anecdote about a family holiday when you were a child:

  • What was the name of your holiday destination?
  • Where exactly is it?
  • Was it far away from where you lived?
  • Did you often go to the same place for your family holiday?
  • Who went with you?
  • How did you travel?
  • What did you do to pass the time on the journey?
  • How long did it take to get there?
  • What sort of accommodation did you stay in?
  • How did you spend your time there?
  • Have you been back there since you were a child?
  • How has the place changed over the years?

The following questions could help to conjure up the memory of your favourite teacher:

  • Was your favourite teacher a man, or a woman?
  • What was their name?
  • What did they look like?
  • What sort of clothes did they use to wear?
  • Where they strict or easygoing?
  • What subject did they teach?
  • Were you good at that subject?
  • Where did you sit in the classroom?
  • What sort of things did you use to do in class?
  • What was special about your favourite teacher?
  • Were they popular with your classmates?
  • Are you still in touch with them?

Carrying Them Out

Option 1

The easiest way to do an anecdote activity is as follows. Give your students a list of leading questions to read and ask them to tick the questions they can, or want to answer. This allows them to take control of the activity and also means that shyer students can avoid matters they feel are too personal.

Then give them planning time to think about both what they are going to say and how they are going to say it. Be on hand to help them and encourage them to use dictionaries and make notes, but discourage them from writing out what they will actually say. The planning stage need not take more than ten minutes, but students are more likely to be adventurous and use more complex language if they have had time to think about it. Research has shown that students who plan for tasks attempt more ambitious language, hesitate less, and make fewer basic errors. After the preparation time, ask students to work in pairs and to exchange anecdotes.

Option 2

The following is another way of doing an anecdote activity. Ask students to listen to you reading the leading questions aloud. Tell them to close their eyes if they wish and just to listen and to allow thoughts to come into their minds as you speak. Read the questions aloud, slowly, in your most hypnotic tones, pausing for a few seconds between questions while the students' memories are activated.

Some classes will find this a more involving process. It also allows you to adapt the questions to your class, adding new ones, or missing out ones you think are inappropriate. After the reading, give the students time to prepare in detail for the speaking task and put them in pairs to exchange anecdotes.

Following Them Up

An anecdote activity is not the kind of speaking task that requires students to use target structures as in the 'free' stage of the PPP (Presentation, Practice, Performance) approach. Rather, in line with a task-based model of language teaching, it may be followed with the playing of a recording of native speakers performing the same, or similar, tasks for students to listen to. As they are already personally engaged with the topic, they are likely to be receptive to the new language they are exposed to in this way.

Doing Them Again

Research indicates that asking students to repeat a task a second time is well worthwhile. When students do an anecdote activity for the first time, tell them that you are going to ask them to repeat the same anecdote in a later class. This will not only reassure them that you are doing it deliberately, but, more importantly, it will mean that they can dedicate some time and thought to preparation. Repeating the anecdote reflects real interaction in that everybody has their set piece, whether it's a joke or a true story. As you will know from personal experience, each time you tell the same story again it gets better--you hesitate less, you know when to pause for effect, or which parts get a laugh, and you elaborate accordingly. Students appreciate the opportunity to do the same thing in their second language, and research has shown that given this opportunity, they become more adventurous and more precise in the language they use. The first time the students do an anecdote activity, they are more likely to concentrate on content; repetition of the task means they have more time to process the language, increase the range of vocabulary, and use more syntactically complex language.

When you repeat the task, it is a good idea to mix the class so that each student works with a new partner. If you are still worried that your students may be reluctant to repeat the same task, move the goal posts: for instance, tell them that you are going to record them this time. It is a real boost for the students to hear themselves (or even better, see themselves on video) and notice the improvements in their performance the second time round.

Watching Them Work

Finally, here are some topics that have worked well for me. Talk about . . .

  • a close friend
  • a film you have seen or a book you have read
  • a moment when you had a rush of adrenalin
  • your life at around the age of eight
  • a party you've been to
  • your ideas for a dream weekend
  • a journey you've been on
  • an item of clothing or an accessory you've bought recently

Now, over to you to write some leading questions to suit your class – then stand back and watch them start speaking.

The keys to a good anecdote activity are:

  • choose global topics that everyone can relate to
  • give the students sufficient preparation time (but not so much that they've done the task before they start)
  • provide opportunities for the students to listen to native speakers doing the anecdote
  • repeat the task; making slight changes if necessary

Sue Kay is the author of the Reward General Resource Packs and co-author of the Macmillan ELT course for adults, Inside English. As well as teaching General English, she runs courses for teachers which give particular emphasis to creating, using and adapting communicative teaching techniques to suit individual classroom situations. Sue spends much of her time giving talks and workshops to native and non-native English language teachers in many different countries.