A lesson shell is a romantic name I give to stories and games that a teacher and their learners can create around a given grammar rule. In a grammar story or game, the main heroes and heroines are the grammar items and the general plot of the story is based on the grammar rule. Such stories and games help enormously to make grammar instruction easier and more fun for young learners and primary and secondary schoolchildren. Children start playing with the trickiest aspect of the new language thus overcoming the fear of grammar and vividly remembering the rules by associating them with the stories.
Just to give you the taste of a grammar story, here is the example of a story I created to explain why English verbs have various forms in the Past Simple. The story is called The Town of Verbs.
Once upon a time there was a town of verbs. Verbs lived happily in their beautiful town. However, they always lived in the present. There was no past for the verbs: every day was a new day in the town of verbs. But one day two little verbs – a brother and a sister – found an old trunk in their grandfathers’ house. Engraved on the lid of the trunk, there were two mysterious letters: ED. The little verbs got very curious to know what was inside of this huge trunk. So they opened it and all of the sudden, out of the trunk flew the memories about the past. They flew out of the window and spread in the air. All the verbs in the town could feel the scent and involuntary breathed it in. To their surprise, they started to recall their past! Their memories came back to them. Some verbs, like “play”, accepted their memories as part of their life and took them in their stride (played). Some verbs, like “try”, were very glad to recall their past because those memories, like a candle in a dark room, lit up their lives with warmth and happiness (tried). Some verbs, like “stop”, got very angry and frustrated at their memories (perhaps those memories were painful and unpleasant), so they tried to block them and build a wall between their memories and themselves (stopped). Some verbs, like “bring”, changed out of all recognition once they remembered their past life (brought). But some verbs, like “cut” or “let”, didn’t changed at all because they were very little kids and didn’t have memories about the past (cut, let).
As you can see the story gives the learner a clear image of various types of verb endings. Later on, you can go into more detail explaining to your learner how to identify the verbs which belong to one of the five groups, but this wouldn’t be difficult for your learners as the graphic foundation has been laid.
The idea of a grammar story or game (which I later called lesson shells) came to me absolutely accidentally. Some years ago I was teaching an 8-year-old girl – Katya – on the one-to-one basis. One day when I came to the lesson, Katya’s mother told me that the girl had got a low grade at school for the dictation on irregular verbs. She asked me to practice these verbs with Katya as she was going to have another dictation the next day. So there I was with a frustrated mother, distressed learner, my painstakingly prepared materials going down the drain and absolutely no materials to teach and practice those damn irregular verbs. What could I say to the mother in such a situation? Only what most teachers commonly say: “Yes, sure! We will do it!” The mother left, I look back at the sheepishly looking little girl, sighed at her miserable look and started talking to her. I felt so sorry for the girl that I began with expressing my sympathy for her situation and by putting all the blame on the irregular verbs. I told her that she was not guilty of that low grade, that this was totally the guilt of the verbs that (what naughty verbs!) had attacked her all of the sudden! Katya gladly agreed with me. She was already more agitated than before. Then I continued by saying that these verbs should be punished for what they had done and, as all criminals, they should be put in prison. At this point Katya was all ready to take revenge and punish those horrible verbs. This way I absolutely unknowingly won my learner’s full attention and assistance. Also, the form of the condolence I offered to my learner (the idea of the verbs-offenders) prompted the theme of the following activities we did to learn and practice the irregular verbs.
So what we did went as follows. I turned into Senior Police Officer and Katya was Junior Police Officer. Our first task in chasing and capturing the offenders was to make the composite sketches of the criminals so that it was easier for Junior Police Officer to traces them. What we did was to copy the verbs and their past forms on slips of cards. Then I collected the cards, shuffled them and spread face down all around the carpet. Next, Katya, Junior Police Officer, had to chase the verbs. All we did was the traditional matching game. But for Katya it wasn’t just another classroom game, it was the real mission! When all the verbs together with their accomplices (the infinitive + Past Simple form) had been collected, Katya reported to me, Senior Police Officer, about the successfully accomplished operation and demonstrated the verbs-offenders to me by naming them all in their pairs. Then on a piece of paper, I drew an improvised prison cells where the verbs and their accomplices were put. So basically, we made a detective story out of a simple classroom activity. The learner was much more motivated to do the activities and exercises I later prepared for the next lesson because she was not just doing familiar classroom tasks but playing a game where she had a specific role and mission. It was fun for both my learner and me.
Just by looking at the above examples of a grammar story and a grammar game you can see that such stories and games can be used both for introducing and practicing grammar. However, some rules should be followed when making up grammar stories and games. I will dwell on these rules a little longer in my next post on the lesson shells.
(To be continued)