Anecdote Activities

What are anecdote activities?

In our experience, teachers get excited about a lesson when they feel that their students have communicated on a level that goes beyond ‘going through the motions’, when they have engaged with the topic on a personal level. Inside Out is filled with personalised speaking activities which encourage students to talk about the things that matter to them, rather than playing roles and exchanging invented information.

The kind of speaking task that we are going to describe here is an extended speaking activity which provides an opportunity for students to tackle a longer piece of discourse and to develop their speaking skills. We’ve called these “anecdotes”.

To see examples of authentic anecdotes, see the Anecdote Videos in the video section.

Setting them up

Anecdote topics need to be meaningful to virtually all your students. They should be subjects about which most people have something to say: a film they’ve seen, a close friend, a journey, an evening out in a restaurant or a childhood memory. However, even though the topics are universal, many students will find it difficult to think of what to say on the spur of the moment. They may not be able to elaborate without some kind of framework to follow; they will need to have their memories jolted, their ideas ‘activated’.

This is achieved in the anecdote activity by careful preparation of a series of leading questions designed to trigger ideas. Ten to twelve questions are ideal. For example, these might be the leading questions for an anecdote about a family holiday when you were a child:

  • What was the name of your holiday destination?
  • Where exactly is it?
  • Was it far away from where you lived?
  • Did you often go to the same place for your family holiday?
  • Who went with you?
  • How did you travel?
  • What did you do to pass the time on the journey?
  • How long did it take to get there?
  • What sort of accommodation did you stay in?
  • How did you spend your time there?
  • Have you been back there since you were a child?
  • How has the place changed over the years?

Carrying them out: Option 1

The easiest way to do an anecdote activity is as follows: Give your students a list of leading questions to read and ask them to tick the questions they can or want to answer. This allows them to take control of the activity and also means that shier students can avoid matters they feel are too personal.

Then give them planning time to think about both what they are going to say and how they are going to say it. Be on hand to help them and encourage them to use dictionaries and make notes, but discourage them from writing out what they will actually say. The planning stage need not take more than ten minutes, but students are more likely to be adventurous and use more complex language if they have had time to think about it. Research has shown that students who plan for tasks attempt more ambitious language, hesitate less and make fewer basic errors.

In “Challenge and Change” published by Macmillan Heinemann, Pauline Foster writes: “Planning time allows students to devote attention to both form and content, rather than forcing them to choose one at the expense of the other.” After the preparation time, ask students to work in pairs and to exchange anecdotes.

Carrying them out: Option 2

The following is another way of doing an anecdote activity: Ask students to listen to you reading the leading questions aloud. Tell them to close their eyes if they wish and just to listen and to allow thoughts to come into their minds as you speak. Read the questions aloud, slowly, in your most hypnotic tones, pausing for a few seconds between questions while the students’ memories are activated. Some classes will find this a more involving process. It also allows you to adapt the questions to your class, adding new ones or missing out ones you think are inappropriate. After the reading, give the students time to prepare in detail for the speaking task and put them in pairs to exchange anecdotes.

Following them up

An anecdote activity is not the kind of speaking task that requires students to use target structures as in the ‘free’ stage of the PPP (Presentation, Practice, Performance) approach. Rather, in line with a task-based model of language teaching, it may be followed with the playing of a recording of native speakers performing the same, or similar, tasks for students to listen to. Alternatively, your students can watch illustrations of anecdotes on the Inside Out videos. As the students are already personally engaged with the topic, they are likely to be receptive to the new language they are exposed to in this way.

Doing them again

Research indicates that asking students to repeat a task a second time is well worthwhile. When students do an anecdote activity for the first time, tell them that you are going to ask them to repeat the same anecdote with a new partner in a later class. This will not only reassure them that you are doing it deliberately, but, more importantly, it will mean that they can dedicate some time and thought to preparation.

Students appreciate the opportunity to do the same thing in their second language and research has shown that given this opportunity they become more adventurous and more precise in the language they use. The first time the students do an anecdote activity, they are more likely to concentrate on content; repetition of the task means they have more time to process the language, increase the range of vocabulary and use more syntactically complex language.

In “Uncovering Grammar” published by Macmillan Heinemann, Scott Thornbury writes: “Simply getting the learners to repeat the task, with different partners, or in the next lesson, is a way of producing more grammatically complex language. Having done the activity once – as a kind of rehearsal – learners now have more spare attention to devote to the form of their output.”

When you repeat the task, it is a good idea to mix the class so that each student works with a new partner. If you are still worried that your students may be reluctant to repeat the same task, move the goal posts: for instance, tell them that you are going to record them this time. It is a real boost for the students to hear themselves (or even better, see themselves on video) and notice the improvements in their performance the second time round.