Another quick and simple task with minimal resources.
With my current group of teachers, a mixture of content teachers teaching through the medium of English and English language teachers, we have a “cultural curiosity” corner each class. It’s something the teachers have asked for. It’s often something they can use to structure a class with their students e.g. pancake racing was a phenomenon they hadn’t come across and were keen to share.
This week I thought we could take a quick look at proverbs. Our classes are pretty freeform as the teachers’ main objective is to gain confidence in their abilities to speak fluently and comfortably with their classes. This is especially true of the content teachers who don’t see themselves as language experts. I decided to take in a selection of common proverbs and to see where that might take us.
I chose twenty proverbs, a random but round figure. I chose ones I thought they might already be familiar with, ones that echoed similar sayings in their language (Spanish) and ones that might be a little more challenging. I wasn’t interested in teaching these proverbs as such, but in using them as a springboard for conversation and exploration of the language.
I printed the proverbs out on a sheet of paper and cut the paper into strips. I knew my class was going to be small so I only needed the one sheet, with a bigger class I would need a sheet per group of four or so. The first task was to read the proverbs and categorise them as a) familiar and/or similar in Spanish b) not familiar but you can understand what they mean c) a complete mystery. I discouraged any questions about language at this stage and sat back to let the students get on with the task.
Once they had their three categories we went through each one. In the first two we commented quickly on uses for two or three of the proverbs, commented on any difference in wording or metaphor. For example with “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” it was interesting to see that we all had different mental images as to what might be doing the biting. What’s your mental image? I wonder if it depends on culture or just personal mental imagery. For me it’s always been a dog, for one student it was a horse, for another a bee. This lead into a tangent on the difference between a bite and a sting, and what can bite us and what can sting us, including jellyfish (which we’ve had a lot of on our coast recently in the storms) and nettles.
The third category needed more time and more focus on language. There were vocabulary items that impeded understanding such as “hatch” in “don’t count your chickens until they hatch”, but once we’d unlocked that word (which we all agreed was not particularly useful beyond the context of the proverb, though it might come up in a primary natural sciences class) the proverb was clear to them and they were able to find examples of situations it could apply to and compare it to the Spanish proverb. Interestingly the Spanish proverb is about hunting wolves and selling skins, a very different mental image.
I had prepared a sheet with paraphrases for all the proverbs, a kind of summary of the gist of our conversation I guess. My initial plan had been to ask the students to match the proverbs on the strips with the paraphrases on their worksheet, but in the context of the class that seemed too easy, so I set them the challenge of reading through the paraphrases and rewriting as many of the proverbs as they could from memory.
They enjoyed the challenge and although I was encouraging them to just make a note of the key content words, they wanted to try and reconstruct each proverb word for word. They sometimes got it completely right (Better late than never) or got pretty close (The squeaky wheel gets grease). When they were struggling we talked about what they could remember, often it was an image (the egg hatching); sometimes it was the nouns (actions/words) but they couldn’t remember the verb that tied them together; sometimes it was the verb (bite). There was a lot of useful chat around the task, discussing language options, negotiating form and meaning, and a lot of focused concentration.
Once they’d got as much as they could, we checked against the originals, spotted any differences (a missing third person -s, a synonymous verb) and decided to break for coffee (we have a three-hour class). We joked about whether or not the caffeine would help with the memorisation process.
On our return we played a kind of guessing game. Taking it in turns, we’d choose a strip with a proverb and paraphrase it to the others. I joined in to model a few. We decided together that we weren’t allowed to use any of the content words from the proverb in our paraphrase. It was another productive activity. A lot of to-ing and fro-ing, a lot of repair and repetition, a lot of searching around for the right words, and peer prompting. Not a lot of competition.
At the end we all chose two or three favourite proverbs and talked about how, often, we don’t need to recite the full proverb, but that just the first few words will be enough to conjure the idea in our listener’s mind (e.g. a bird in the hand, don’t count your chickens, better late). Next class we’ll see how many we can all remember from the list. I have a feeling their memories will be better than mine. They worked hard to unpack and process and discuss each one.