Negative prefixes & Cuisenaire rods: a recent teaching demo

Recently, I was asked to do a thirty minute demo lesson for a language institution in the U.S. I didn’t know much about the students I was going to teach, but was told that there would probably be about 5 to 10 students ranging from A2 – B1 language level (according to CEFR*). Because the institution heard about my interest and research on utilizing Cuisenaire Rods** in language teaching, they requested I do a demo around the rods. I decided to revisit a lesson I did years ago which became the departure point for this demo with some revisions. On demo day,  representing probably more than three nationalities, a diverse group of six university students showed up.

This lesson focuses on the subtlety of using four negative prefixes (im-, in-, ir-, un-) to change the meaning of a word.

My main aim:  students will be able to use Cuisenaire rods to associate words with negative prefixes by talking about a personal experience using a few negative prefixes.

My sub aims: Students will be able to

  1. utilize Cuisenaire rods to form visual/color associations with four negative prefixes.
  2. differentiate between four negative prefixes when matching them with a set of 20-25 words.
  3. talk about a personal experience using at least 3 words with negative prefixes.
  4. correctly identify the negative prefixes for selected words from the lesson’s story.

The following is my lesson outline:

1. Teacher writes the following words on the board and checks their meanings with students:

convenient / necessary / pleasant / possible / sure / usual / visible / adequate / responsible

(Checking meaning could potentially take a while, but the key is to keep it short. Students could be asked to think of a synonym and the teacher could point to each word going around the class asking a different student each time to offer a guess for each word. These guesses could go up on the board. Another way to keep this stage short could be by having an equal number of synonyms on the board and asking students to match the synonyms to the words.)

2. Teacher tells/reads a story*** and asks students to listen very carefully to see if they can spot any of the words on the board, and asks how much of the story they remember later with questions like:

  • What were the feelings being expressed in the story? / What feelings does the story evoke?
  • Did I use all the words listed on the board? / Which of these words did I use?
  • Did you like/dislike anything about the story?

3. Teacher introduces a box of Cuisenaire rods and asks a student to have fellow classmates pick one of each of the following colors:

light green / red / yellow / blue

4. Teacher writes the following prefixes on the board and assigns each prefix a color:

im- / yellow

in- / light green

ir- / blue

un- / red

5. Teacher asks students to hold up the right color rod every time she calls out a prefix. E.g.:

  • For the prefix im- we’re going to use the ____ rod?
  • What color rod are we going to use for the prefix im-?

(More practice in prefix-rod-color association could be made by the teacher holding up random rods one at a time with increased speed and varying order and having students say the prefix associated with each color)

6. Practice (form): Teacher shows a bag/box full of paper slips**** (with a word written on each) and asks students to pass it around. Each student pulls out a paper slip and reads the word out loud. Everyone guesses the correct prefix by holding up and showing the rod/color associated with their guesses.

7. Practice (form & meaning): Teacher asks students to think of a negative experience they had and share this story with the person sitting next to them.

Teacher asks students to share that story

  • using at least 3 of these prefixes
  • in at least 5 sentences

(The teacher could provide a short example here)

8. Students (volunteers) share with the whole group the story they listened to from their friend.

9. Review/Test: Teacher hands out a text of the story she shared in the beginning of class. Students work in pairs and use rods to fill the gaps for the missing prefixes in the story.

10. Checking answers: One student reads the whole story but whenever s/he comes to a gap, s/he reads the word without the prefix. The other students listen and hold up the rod they think is associated with the word.

The students were eager and greatly enjoyed the lesson. Some were using the rods for the first time so it was really exciting for them. One student found using the rods in place of the prefixes really helpful and an eye-opener into a tool that really focused her to see the change in the meaning of a word.

*CEFR is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages is a framework of reference for learning, teaching and assessment of languages.

**Cuisenaire rods are small pieces of blocks (usually made of wood) of varying lengths from 1 to 10 cm with a 1cm² cross-section. Each length is a different color. These rods are flexible and versatile tools utilized by the language learner. They can easily represent many different situations,which the students themselves produce or interpret models, prepared by other learners or the teacher. As Roslyn Young (1995), an educator and English teacher states, rods “allow the teacher to construct non-ambiguous situations which are directly perceptible by all.” Due to their generic representation they “are easy to manipulate and can be used symbolically…they lend themselves as well to the construction of model houses and furniture, towns and cities, stations….” (Young, D. The Rods section, para. 1, 2).  – This is taken as is from my MA thesis titled, Cuisenaire Rods: Pedagogical and Relational Instruments for Language Learning. You can read it online here:

http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1522&context=ipp_collection

***The story told/read:

An Unusual Rock

She reached out to get the _____ usual piece of rock on the edge of the sea. At first, the waves got in the way and she picked up another rock instead. She looked at it and threw it back in the sea. That was not the rock she wanted. How _____ necessary, she thought, for the waves to behave in such an _____ convenient way. The waves were making it hard to see. “This is so _____ pleasant, it is too windy,” she complained. The rock was suddenly _____ visible. As the waves drew back, she spotted the _____ usual rock again and quickly bent down to grab it. She looked at the green sparkly rock. It was beautiful. As soon as she held it up in the air, it disappeared. “What happened?” she wondered, “where is my rock? Where did it go?” she started asking herself. “Is it _____ possible? No, no, it’s _____ possible!” She started looking around. She looked at the sea. It was not there. “Did the waves blow it away?” She felt _____ happy and decided to walk by the sea. Not very far from where she was, she saw a bird playing with something. Could it be her rock? She was _____ sure and walked closer to the bird. Yes, it was her green sparkling _____ usual rock in the bird’s beak!

An Unusual Rock –with Answers

She reached out to get the _un_ usual piece of rock on the edge of the sea. At first, the waves got in the way and she picked up another rock instead. She looked at it and threw it back in the sea. That was not the rock she wanted. How __un_ necessary, she thought, for the waves to behave in such an ___in__ convenient way. The waves were making it hard to see. “This is so ___un_ pleasant, it is too windy,” she complained. The rock was suddenly ___in_ visible. As the waves drew back, she spotted the ___un_ usual rock again and quickly bent down to grab it. She looked at the green sparkly rock. It was beautiful. As soon as she held it up in the air, it disappeared. “What happened?” she wondered, “where is my rock? Where did it go?” she started asking herself. “Is it _____ possible? No, no, it’s __im__ possible!” She started looking around. She looked at the sea. It was not there. “Did the waves blow it away?” She felt ___un_ happy and decided to walk by the sea. Not very far from where she was, she saw a bird playing with something. Could it be her rock? She was __un__ sure and walked closer to the bird. Yes, it was her green sparkling __un__ usual rock in the bird’s beak!

****words listed on paper slips:

usual                                  necessary                            convenient                            pleasant

visible                                possible                               content                                   sure

complete                           considerate                         experienced                          edible

adequate                           polite                                    mature                                   perfect

practical                            patient                                 healthy                                   important

common                            comfortable                       dependable                            reliable

responsible                       reversible

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