Jigsaw listening with BBC Engineering Connections

Engineering Connections with presenter Richard Hammond is a BBC series (though originally on  National Geographic Channel) about general engineering. Each episode looks at an engineering structure/technology as developed from earlier/other technologies.

The sometimes surprising connections lends itself naturally to an engaging lead-in. So for the example of the Formula One (F1) racing car episode (Series 3 Episode 2) one can project the following phrases taken from the introduction of the episode:

  • A revolution in artillery
  • A new design for a jet engine
  • An ancient boat
  • Protective armour
  • Swords

and ask students how these five things are related. After some time for responses and letting the students know that they are all related to a F1 race car,  there is inevitably a lot of curiosity about how some of the 5 things could be related. The lead-in could be extended to include a discussion of the various hypotheses students may have.

Students are then put into 5 groups and assigned one of the five connections to watch and take notes on. They need to be able to explain to the class afterwards the details of how their connection is related to the topic of the episode. If you have fewer than 5 groups, each group could be assigned to more than one connection or one of the connections could be seen by all groups.

The length of each connection in an episode averages to about 8 mins (a typical episode is generally about 50 mins in total).

The class discussion involves a lot of language related to engineering lexis as well as general English lexis. And even more importantly students are motivated enough to get their classmates to explain more clearly their feedback allowing them to practice concept checking questions, rephrasing etc.

The only downside is that I don’t personally like Richard Hammond and in some of the series his inane grinning can grate!

What’s that sound…?

In issue 63 of  TESOL France magazine an article by Mike Harrison (@harrisonmike) encourages teachers to use sound in the classroom. Inspired by this push I wanted to post this lesson idea.

To get students into the mood for focused listening get them to close their eyes and listen to their environment for one minute.

After a minute, ask the class to list all the things they heard in the school environment around them. Ask them to think about what the sounds might be, how near or far away they were, whether they were discrete or continuous, natural or man-made.


Then play them track 3. Dead Wood ‘Warming’ from below.

Ask them –  What kind of words could you use to describe the sounds? What images do you see?

Here work could be done on the language the class produces in response to the questions.

Some of the following words to describe sounds could be used to prompt students:



After the class has time to respond to the questions tell them that the piece of music was made in response to a photo. So what do you think the photo was? How would you describe the photo?

Again language produced here can be worked on.

Then four photos could be shown and students are asked to pick the one they think inspired the piece of music that they heard.

Photo number three of a wooden structure peeling and drying was the photo which inspired track number 3.

There can be many follow up/alternative activities should the lesson be a hit, e.g. play some more tracks from the INSTAGR/AM/BIENT project and match to photos already shown; students can draw a response to the sounds heard; they can write a story or a scene inspired by the sounds. See the one minute listening site for more ideas.


@mikeharrison recording at #vrtwebcon 2012 where he shows how to use sound effects in the classroom.

Contemporary process; even French students not into wine-making

I had been struggling to find an interesting and modern example to use to demonstrate the passive voice in writing about processes. Previously I had used a ‘how to make an X-wing fighter from two Paris metro tickets’ which  turned out marginally better than using wine-making as the process!

So I was glad to see a tweet (hat tip @chadsansing) which led me to an article on a project that turned a set of library steps into a giant game. And as a bonus the text accompanying the video used the passive voice. Authentic, interesting text, not made-up, stiff, out of date prose!

Lesson idea:

There are a number of great images to lead-in at Photos by Michael Newman and Photos by Kennedy Library.

For example using this image:
Taking a turn

one could start by asking – What do you think is happening here? This would then lead onto eliciting various vocabulary needed for the writing task – stairs, tin cans, (tennis) ball, balloons, game, etc.

Before, during  and after photos could then be used to encourage thinking about the procedure which goes from an empty staircase to a game via electronics and collaborative work.

This video of the event could be shown next:

Students would be told to write up a report of the event as if they were a journalist for a newspaper.

Finally a gap fill could be given of an actual write-up:

Four flights of seventy-two stairs ____  _______ into a giant game board using 1,200 feet of wire and 48 Internet-connected tin cans _______ with green and gold helium balloons at DIY: Physical Computing at Play. These were our targets.

The customized game ____   _______ after we invited designers and web developers Michael J. Newman and Scott Hutchinson to Kennedy Library at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, to present at Science Café, an ongoing community series. They made a couple of drives up from L.A. to find inspiration and check out our Brutalist building. The two saw our dramatic stretch of concrete stairs and knew they’d found their game board.

At the event, participants built and tested simple circuits then rigged our staircase using the wire, cans and balloons. Then we aimed and threw tennis balls down the stairs, hoping to knock over the cans, which acted as live switches on foil tape.

Cans _____   _______ to a breakout box by 25’ wires, and a live site updated the score whenever a can from either the green or gold team ____  _____  ____. Working with the library’s IT group, the site ___   ______ on digital displays throughout the building as well as on participants’ mobile devices. Cal Poly linked to the scoring site from the university’s home page.

Use these words: to be (x5), transform, decorate, conceive, attach, knock over, share

As an additional activity one could use the following interview as a listening quiz:

SoundCloud commenting and enhancing listening activities

Sometimes things are staring you in the face and you don’t know it until someone points it out. Such was the case with SoundCloud and language listening activities. I had signed up for a SoundCloud account sometime in 2009 to put up a couple of re-mixes I had made. I immediately liked the user interface, the way the audio waveform is displayed but I did not take too much notice of the commenting feature.

Then recently I read Soundcloud for listening practice by Tyson Seburn. Doh! Why did I not think of that!

I prepared a new account called English Listening, uploaded an audio file and added the 4 listening tasks that Tyson Seburn wrote in the form of 4 comments.

1. Choose two 10 second parts and write down what you hear word for word
2. Choose a two sentence part, think about it then write it in your OWN words.
3. Choose one idea from the audio and write your opinion of it.
4. Read all the opinions and comment on at least one by giving your view/opinion.

Note for free accounts you are limited to 120 minutes of audio. I also made the account private, SoundCloud provides a link which you can use to send to students.

Things to consider

  • Login IDs for students – they need to have either a SoundCloud account or Facebook account. If they have neither then they need to sign up to a SoundCloud account which is relatively painless.
  • Clearly labelled ID – so that you can recognise who is who. If for some reason this is not clear in the ID, make sure they label themselves in the comments.
  • Where to comment? – for students who are new to SoundCloud will need to point out that you can pick a relevant part of the audio to comment. For task 1 and 2 this should be straightforward; task 3 is more ambiguous since equally valid to comment as a reply to the task comment as to the relevant part of the audio.
  • Copyright issues – Always a blurry line this one for language teachers, with this particular listening I forget where I took it from and so can’t ascribe source. Assuming it is covered by non-commercial use!
  • Commenting system – is not ideal to enable deep interactions and also with very large classes it can soon become an abstract piece of artwork.

For the two groups I trialled this with I left it as an ongoing task to complete at their leisure with the proviso that they need to leave a comment/s by the end of two weeks.

(Example of student comments)