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Teaching Tips 198

Lear's Limericks
Silence can be golden


I've been seeing a lot about the term 'closure' from Gestalt psychology recently. Here's a brief intro to 'Gestaltism':

Gestalt psychology or gestaltism (German: Gestalt – "essence or shape of an entity's complete form") is a theory of mind and brain of the Berlin School; the operational principle of gestalt psychology is that the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies. The principle maintains that the human eye sees objects in their entirety before perceiving their individual parts, suggesting the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Gestalt psychology tries to understand the laws of our ability to acquire and maintain stable percepts in a noisy world. Gestalt psychologists stipulate that perception is the product of complex interactions among various stimuli.

One aspect of Gestalt psychology is the idea of 'closure' - when we perceive something as unresolved our brain automatically looks for some kind of resolution or completion, some kind of closure drawing from our past experience & understanding. For example when we see a half made pattern our brains automatically make it into a whole pattern - the panda logo of the World Wildlife Fund is commonly cited as an example of this. There is a lot of white space in this logo but our brains make us see the panda within.


What do you see in the following?


Recptv skls r th radg n lisng skls.

You have probably made sense of these by completing the 'patterns'.

Closure manifests itself in every part of out lives as we try to make sense of everything around us, and clearly relevant to learning a language.

We can use & develop this skill with our students with problem solving & language. Guiding them to work out the rules can help them make the links for themselves, find the closure, the rule, & the more they do this the more they will develop this skill. Taking a 'building block approach', building up a grammatical base so students can see the links facilitates all of this.

They do get the wrong end of the stick & our job is to put them on the right track. We have all had students who overgeneralise a rule such as the past simple endings when they hear lots of regular '-ed' verbs, they come out with 'I goed to the cinema yesterday', an admirable generalisation as they do not have the full information to make the correct rule.

With language we need to develop the ability to be comfortable with & tolerant of unknown lexis. Some students are better at this than others. Some need to have a mother tongue translation, seen to them as complete closure, while others are happy with an approximation, aware that the next time they meet this item they will get to know it better. Talking to the students about this can help, explaining that meaning can only fully come from meeting the item in several different contexts so that the more they use it or see & hear it, the more they will be able to understand & use it better. Using texts which are slightly above their level, where students can work out the meanings of some words from the context clearly help develop this skill & lots of extensive reading outside of class is essential.

Other sources of frustration in the class might be related to a lack of closure, for example, as when they do not have sufficient time to finish a reading text, understand a listening text, finish tasks in general, come to a agreement on an outcome in a roleplay or discussion or finish a unit in the coursebook etc...

So there are slightly different meanings of 'closure' that we can use to help promote learning & account for frustrations along the way.

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Lear's Limericks

There once was an English teacher,
With one distinguishing feature.
Whether young or old,
All her students were told,
They were good, and all did believe her!

The unofficial Limerick Day, the birthday of Edward Lear, is on May 12th. Here are a couple of well known limericks by Edward Lear:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, 'It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!'

Edward Lear limerick image

There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin.

Edward Lear limerick image

Edward Lear, A Book of Nonsense

First of all, the structure behind the limerick - It is a five line poem that consists of a triplet & a couplet. The 1st, 2nd & 5th lines rhyme, with 3 beats per line, while the 3rd & 4th lines rhyme, with two beats per line. The last line is usually the punch line.

Here are a few ways of using limericks:

For reception, limericks are good for helping students to become aware of rhythm. As you read out the limerick get them to beat the stress by knocking on their desks or clapping their hands. They can then go on to read limericks out loud to each other. See the links at the end for sources of limericks.

If you have cuisenaire rods, give out a couple of colours to each pair & ask them to represent the rhythm with the rods. To see this done on the site with nursery rhymes

Asking students to produce limericks can be fun but challenging. You might want to start off by giving some limericks with gaps the missing vocab jumbled up. The students have to choose the most appropriate word to fit the limerick. For example:

There once was a man from ______
Who interrupted two girls at their ______
Said he with a ______
"That park bench, ______
Just painted it right where you're ______

Missing parts:
well I
Great Britain

And another one:

There was a young woman named ______
Whose speed was much faster than ______
She set out one ______
In a relative, ______
And returned on the previous ______

Missing parts:

Then go on to giving out the first lines of 3 limericks & also the other lines all mixed up. Through the content & the rhythm, the students unjumble them all.

Then to the first line of a limerick to all of the students:

'There was an old man from Ham'

Brainstorm all the words they can think of that rhyme with 'Ham' - am, clam, cram, dam, damn, dram, gram, jam, lamb, ma'am, ram, Saddam, scam, slam, spam, swam, tram, wham. Then give out your list & go through them. The students then invent their own limerick. You could get them to rotate their limericks after each line, with a new pair adding the next line to each limerick. Treat it as a bit of fun & that their limericks can be as well, as wacky as they want.

Here's another teaching-related limerick:

Democracy takes education
And commitment to the relation.
If people would come
With their homework all done,
There wouldn't be so much frustration.

Other Tips about using poetry:
Hopeful haikus:
Burns Night:

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Silence can be golden

There is a tendency for teachers to start getting nervous when
there is silence in the classroom. Maybe the students are bored,
they could be upset with the way the activity or class is going
or they might be too tired to bother - all negative thoughts
about what might be happening. Try to think of 'productive
silence' - this is using silence effectively & viewing it

Here are a few ideas where silence can be used productively:

- use individual work before pairwork. It is thought that this
order is much more productive than straight into pairwork. The
individual has time to think before sharing ideas.

- use mental effort & challenge actively as a means to working
out language for themselves. Use lots of problem solving with the
adult learner. The language then becomes much more memorable &

- have a silent reflection time of 2/3 minutes after a language
presentation or a freer oral activity. In the former the students
can think about how they might use the new language & in the
latter they can think about how they got on & mentally prepare to
tell a neighbour about the strategies they used to go about the
task. You're providing 'space' for them to think.

- reflection time could come at the end of a lesson - the
students have time to think about what was covered & formulate
any questions.

- use silence as another means of varying the pace of a lesson.
Plan this in amongst the speaking & listening activities to
create a well-balanced lesson.

- wait time is the time you give the students to answer a
question you have asked. This can sometimes seem interminable
with the teacher jumping in & answering her own question. The
students need to process what you have said, think of an answer &
then think about how to phrase their answer, a process much
longer than a native speaker response. Count to 8 after asking a
question to give them long enough.

- the writing skill is much underrated & neglected because of the
apparent 'waste' of valuable classroom time. OK, but writing is
valuable in its own right & as reinforcement for language work.
While students are writing it is a very active time for them. I
rather suspect that the attitude to writing has more to do with
teacher prejudice than student prejudice.

- give silent preparation time before getting into a roleplay or
discussion. The students think about the language they will need
& how they can go about accomplishing the task. Be on hand for
any questions from individuals. The resulting discussion will be
more fruitful.

- you probably try to get the adult group talking as soon as they
come into class but it is the opposite with the younger learner
class - they usually come in hyped up after a day at school. A
silent activity to begin the lesson helps you take the reins from
the start & helps them focus on the lesson at hand.

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