Category Archives: Language

Headline hangman – get your pupils discussing today’s news

The chief complaint by pupils about schooling is that it is not relevant. It bears little connection to the “real world” as they experience it. As part of my ongoing series of practical activities to promote “critical thinking” I would recommend the following quick activity to address this in an engaging way.

  • Headline Hangman

Everyone knows Hangman. So, take any headline from the newspaper of the day and play “Headline Hangman”. You draw lines for each letter and separate each word. If pupils guess a letter correctly, enter that letter wherever it appears in the headline. Incorrect guesses lead to the gradual construction of the hangman.

Introduce local rules at your discretion. For example, pupils can’t call out 2 vowels in a row; if more than one pupil calls out a letter at the same time you can add to the hangman; pupils can guess a whole word but if they get it wrong, you can add 2 lines to the hangman etc etc.

  • Benefits

I have always found this game amazingly popular, with children, and adults on courses too. Apart from being quick, its benefits are many.

At word level, children can learn spelling rules or anomalies. If a pupil calls out a letter, you can ask them where they think it goes and why. It becomes quickly apparent those pupils who think strategically.

At sentence and text level, there is always room for discussion about the choice of words, because headlines often contain alliteration or wordplay. After the headline has been guessed, you can invite pupils to see whether they could improve on it, substitute synonyms to make it more or less shouty, more nuanced, less biased or whatever.

  • Real world events

But even more importantly, the language learning is undertaken in the context of real world events. When the headline is guessed, it’s important to show the actual headline from the paper or Internet immediately so that pupils know the material is of the real world and not made up for the classroom. The key is to select something that interests you but this activity lends itself especially well to global events or issues that invite discussion. The very topicality, the fact that the stuff is in the papers today, makes it gripping and relevant.

Obviously, the opportunity also arises to become immersed in media literacy – the nature of truth as perceived through the prism of a report and so on.

In a crowded curriculum, Headline Hangman affords you and your class the opportunity to discuss news stories frequently and you will be surprised at how this can inspire pupils to read about current events. Your discussion about the article can be as long or short as you wish, but regular practice can only enhance speaking and listening skills and the ability of your class to argue and disagree gracefully.

Simple, but effective (The Independent)

I’ve used this game for ages and can’t remember where I stole it from. Apologies, but I would love to hear of any similar games or activities you have to introduce topical events into the fabric of teaching and learning…


Critical thinking – engaging pupils

I was disheartened to read this report in the Guardian that take up rates for critical thinking at A-level is declining. For all sorts of reasons, critical thinking skills are vital to us as individuals and as a society.

  • Why critical thinking is important

The ability to think independently, that is to assess information and evaluate it for accuracy and sense; to make connections; to understand hidden meaning; to unpick false premises and to know how to disagree with courtesy – just some of the armoury we need to cope with and make sense of the tsunami of information we encounter.

But for the health of society, rigorous thinking is itself critical, in order that we don’t become to prey to demagoguery or mob hysteria. Additionally, thinking that is critical and creative has the possibility of looking forward rather than deferring to authority or the mistaken beliefs of the past.

  • Freedom

I like Tagore’s take on this, linking critical thinking to a sense of freedom:      “Our mind does not gain true freedom by acquiring materials for knowledge and possessing other people’s ideas but by forming its own standards of judgement and producing its own thoughts.”

So what practical ideas are there for teaching the mechanics of critical thinking, especially in the earlier years? Over the next weeks I hope to blog on these. First up is this simple but incredibly effective activity.

  • “Odd one out” activity

Choose any 3 objects, the first to hand preferably, and ask pupils to choose, in their mind, the odd one out and to consider why. Take feedback, insisting on explanations. Of course, there is no one correct answer and pupils will quickly realise this as they hear the different answers. 

Example: paper – cup – computer

Answers: Paper because it’s made out of wood                                                                                           Cup because you can drink out of it                                                                                             Computer because it requires electricity

This exercise benefits from repetition because pupils get better at finding different and more interesting reasons why an item is the odd one out. After only a few days you will be amazed at how inventive and creative even small children can be.

This exercise, which you can extend in myriad ways, for instance by setting particular criteria (e.g. thinking about the environment which is the odd one out?) is quick to organise, enjoyed by pupils who like the fact there is no single correct answer and its deceptive simplicity masks important learning.

  • Benefits
  1.  Pupils learn to back up opinions with evidence, the cornerstone of rational thinking.
  2. With practice, pupils become increasingly creative in their thinking.
  3. Pupils acknowledge that different views can be held simultaneously and it’s not threatening.

To avoid a mindset where children only begin to identify differences, it’s worth varying the activity occasionally by asking pupils to find something that connects the items. Perhaps too often children are asked to identify differences, but particularly in the field of human relations it is as important for children to be able to find similarities.

I’d be really interested to find out how you get on with this or if you have similar activities to tell me about.

Yiddish – a brief introduction to its joys

I really liked this recent post about interesting words not found in English. Getting inside another language is a powerful way to understand that culture – traditions of thinking within it can be unlocked if you look closely. I’ve long been wanting to share some Yiddish terms that already greatly enrich our language. You’ve no doubt heard and may already use some of these: bagel, golem, klutz, schlep, schmaltz, shmooze…

What is particularly wonderful about Yiddish, apart from the delicious sound, is the delight in character traits that reveal such insight into the human condition.

So very much by way of introduction, what about some of these? Much of this is shamelessly stolen from the timeless “Joys of Yiddish” by Leo Rosten…

  • Chutzpah (pronounce “khoots-pah” to rhyme with foots -bar and be as gutterally phlegm filled as you can with that first phoneme)

Meaning brazen effrontery, gall. Cheek is far too anaemic a translation.

If you want to be an effective “schnorrer” (beggar, see below) you need plenty of chutzpah as in:  A schnorrer is invited in to a house by a woman who feels sorry for him. On the table is a pile of dark bread and some delicious challa. “There’s black bread,too”, the woman hinted. “I prefer challa” he replies. “But challa is much more expensive”. “Lady,” as he continued to chew “it’s worth it.”

Modern day examples of chutzpah: Bankers claiming mind numbing bonuses having recklessly and criminally contributed to the collapse of financial markets.

  • Meshuggeh

Basically means crazy, absurd – Somehow it’s the perfect thing to say to pupils when they do that stuff they do…

  • Schlemiel

There are loads of words in Yiddish that  describe with exquisite nuance the person who doesn’t quite measure up…today crudely and less interestingly called a “loser”. The schlemiel is not a ‘shlimazl’ nor a ‘schmendrick’, because he’s at he same time foolish, conjenitally maladjusted, gauche, naive, gullible, clumsy as in: Two schlemiels are drinking tea. In time one looked up and announced portentously: “Life! What is it? Life – is like a fountain!”  The other pondered for a few minutes, the asked “Why?”  The first thought and thought , then sighed, “So OK: life isn’t like a fountain.”

Modern day Schlemiel – Our schools minister ?

  • Nudnick

A particular favourite of mine to describe,at times, my own kids and it works perfectly with pupils… meaning pest, nag, annoyer, more than just a nuisance definitely! As in “Doctor, I’m worried. I keep talking to myself.” “You really don’t need to worry, lots of perfectly healthy people do that.” “But doctor, you don’t know what a nudnick I am!” 

A Phudnick, by the way, is a nudnick with a PhD.

  • Schnorrer

A beggar, but not a fool nor in any way apologetic – high on chutzpah, low on false modesty…as in: “A schnorrer came to the back door on his bi weekly rounds. “I’m sorry,” said the lady of the house, “I don’t have any change in the house. Come back tomorrow.” “Tomorrow,” frowned the schnorrer, “Don’t let it happen again…I’ve lost a fortune this week extending credit.”

Do you have a schnorrer in your circle of friends?

Maybe these are already in your wordbank. What words, of any origin, would you like to see incorporated into daily usage? Please feel free to share your ideas.