I wish – a lesson plan

This is a lesson plan I used recently with a 1-1 Up-Int student to introduce and practise wishes in the future, present and past. We’d revised all the conditionals, so ‘wishes’ seemed like a logical continuation, because of both a conceptual and a grammatical link. The class went down really well so I thought I’d share it here with you together with some reflections on the benefits or lack thereof of using gap-fills as controlled practice.


IDEA: choose any topic that you think will go down well with your student(s). I chose Berlusconi, because the student is Italian and we’d had a few chats about the politics there, so I knew he’d be interested. In addition, Berlusconi’s scandalous life lends itself nicely to the grammar point, as you’ll see below.

  1. Schema activation: Do you know who Berlusconi is? What is he (in)famous for?
  2. Text Orientation: Read the title. What scandals might the author mention?
  3. Gist reading: Read the article quickly. Were any of your predictions correct? Which scandal is the biggest/most shocking in your opinion?
  4. Post reading discussion:
  • What do you think about Berlusconi’s life and political career?
  • How do the scandals make you feel? How do you think other people feel about Berlusconi and his life?
  • Do you think Berlusconi regrets his past behaviour and mistakes? (IDEA: apart from a natural follow up to the text, this short discussion is linked to the next stage in which the new language is introduced)

Berlusconi’s scandals – timeline (by John Hooper, The Guardian, Friday 14 October 2011 19.20 BST)

1990 Berlusconi found guilty of lying in court about his membership of subversive masonic lodge Propaganda 2. Conviction extinguished by amnesty, one of two from which he will benefit.

1995 Eight-month-old government falls after he is deserted by his ally, Umberto Bossi. For many, it is the end of a novel political experiment. But, after seven years in the wilderness, Berlusconi returns to power in 2001.

1998 Berlusconi gets a two year, nine month sentence for bribing his firm’s tax inspectors. The conviction was later overturned and the case was “timed out” by a statute of limitations, something that gets him off the hook in five other trials.

2002 Acquitted of false accounting following a change in the law by his own government. The same thing happens three years later.
2004 President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi refuses to sign a bill which weakened independence of judiciary.
2007 Oggi magazine publishes “Berlusconi’s Harem”, with photos of him hand-in-hand with several young women at his villa on Sardinia.

2008 A former topless model, Mara Carfagna, becomes equal opportunities minister in his fourth government.

2009 Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario, announces she is leaving him because he “consorts with minors”. The prime minister is found to have attended the 18th birthday party of an aspiring model and actress. The same year sees the release of a recording allegedly made by a prostitute in Berlusconi’s bed.

2010: Investigation opened into the prime minister’s “bunga bunga” parties and his relationship with a young Moroccan, Karima el-Mahroug.

2011 Berlusconi put on trial for allegedly paying a juvenile prostitute.

I wish…

a) Above you discussed different opinions about Berlusconi and his life. Read the ones below. Did you mention any of them? Do you agree with them? Why (not)?:

  1. I wish he wouldn’t lie.
  2. I wish he were a better politician.
  3. I wish he hadn’t got into so many scandals over the years.
  4. I wish Berlusconi would change his behaviour.
  5. I wish he retired from politics forever.
  6. I wish he had gone to jail.

b) Do the sentences 1-6 above talk about real possibilities or dreams? Which sentences talk about (some sentences can go into more than one category):

  • the present
  • the future
  • the past
  • an annoying present habit

c) How do you make wishes:

  • the present/the future: I wish + _______
  • the past: I wish + __________
  • an annoying present habit: I wish + ________

d) Do you have any wishes about Berlusconi’s life? You can base your answers on the article from the previous side.

e) Imagine Berlusconi decides to repent publicly and asks people to forgive him for his scandals. What wishes do you think he might make?

f) Think about other people or things that annoy you now or annoyed you in the past, or things you would like to change. Use wishes to talk about them. You can use the ideas below.
•    your job
•    celebrities
•    TV commercials
•    the weather
•    sports
•    politics and politicians

Comments and Reflections:

As you can see, I decided to omit the standard “fill-in-the-gaps” controlled practice. This was because I wanted to see how useful and necessary it is to have this stage. 99% of course book lesson will have it, and we incorporate it into lesson plans without often thinking why we do it.

Supposedly, it should have a positive impact on the learner’s performance in more open and communicative activities. But how often have you done a gap-fill and moved on to a freer speaking practice and the learners were still struggling, making the same mistakes, etc. as if they hadn’t had any controlled practice? Very often the move from accuracy to fluency just doesn’t work.

So instead I asked the student to make his own wishes about Berlusconi (see point d)). In a sense the activity was still quite controlled and guided, but much less so than if we had done a gap-fill. The student had to think both about the content and the language, which raised the procedural demands and made him process the language more deeply. It was also a natural response to the text and a natural follow up to the discussion. The student, I hoped, was also going to generate far more language than in a simple gap-fill.

The results were quite encouraging. The student produced a variety of sentences using the TL (correct and incorrect grammatically). I would say as much as he would have if he had done a traditional controlled practice before.

After the lesson I stumbled upon an excellent blog post by Luis Otávio Barros: “Life Beyond Gap-fill?”, in which he raises doubts about the benefits of gap-fills as controlled practice. It was interesting to see that my initial “experiment” and hunch was in a sense backed by his article.

Of course, the need for controlled practice and the amount/degree of it, might depend on an individual/group. However, as Luis argues in the article, we should re-think why we do gap-fills and whether they are perhaps better alternatives or short-cuts to production.

In my next classes when I teach a language point, I’ll also try to circumvent the traditional gap-fill stage using some of the ideas described above and in Luis’ article, and see what the results are. I’ll keep you all posted.

4 thoughts on “I wish – a lesson plan

  1. I use duolingo for Br. Portuguese (for now) where there is no gap fill, just translating sentences without any explantion of context or grammar, which has its pros and cons. I could imagine life without gap fills, at least for me when learning. What about students who make persistent mistakes and don't monitor themselves enough to study the parts where they are making mistakes? Another point for me is that a gap fill is over quickly and it is easy to go back to making mistakes after the exercise. With something like duolingo I am forced to practice each bit of grammar hundreds or thousands of times, with feedback and penalties for mistakes. It's something I like about the program, because that amount of practice is difficult to set up otherwise.

    I recently realised the significant difference between knowing grammar and real life usage of phrases and expressions and chunks of words. Knowing grammar (even if it isn't easy) seems like such a small first step now, where I thought it was so important before. And still, people find it so difficult. We could focus on real life usage more than grammar.

    I guess the alternative popped into my head today later on. That argument may go; once you have learned a way of expressing yourself in plain language with correct grammar, you are free to go and pick up other ways of expressing things (slang, expressions, collocations, chunks, idioms) through input (listening, reading) and immersion.

  2. Hi James,
    Thanks for commenting here and sharing your learning experience.
    As I said on FB, I haven't used Duolingo myself. I've been using MEmrise a lot to learn words and chunks, and I've tried it out for different languages. It really boosts your memory. You can read more about it in my post here: http://teflreflections.blogspot.nl/2013/10/mem-up-your-memory.html. If you haven't used it, check it out – it's well worth it.
    Now I've just logged in to Duolingo. On the surface it looks really good, but I've already got incredibly frustrated only after 5 minutes of using it. I've tried doing the placement test for Portuguese (I'm probably B1), but the translation was going horribly wrong for me. It doesn't make much sense to me as a level test, but I haven't given up. I'll try to give it another go. Is the whole website only based on translations, though?
    I guess my approach to learning Portuguese has been much more communicative. I decided to put the grammar aside and focus on being communicative. Mind you, I still try to notice an imitate the language patterns, and take any corrections my language buddies give me on board. But the idea of being always 100% correct (especially when spelling) seems horrifying to me! What do you think?
    You made a good point about the amount of practice. A gap-fill is over VERY quickly, arguably also lacking any sort of deeper processing of the language. This usually results in students making the same mistakes in speaking we corrected in the gap-fill. It could be argued that more of the gap-fill, or translation (as in your case) could lead to fluency. But in my opinion, only if it's a side dish to the main one, which should be communicative practice. In speaking you have to juggle both the content and the grammar and use it immediately and quite spontaneously, which is very different from what you do when you fill in the gaps. This is a good post on the topic: http://www.richmondshare.com.br/controlled-practice-activities/
    Couldn't you straight away start with slang, every day expressions through input and immersion? I think you can and should (with the grammar and accuracy being a side dish).
    What do you reckon? Cuanto tempo voce esta aprendendo Portugues? Fala ja bem?

  3. Thank you for your comment above, Anonymous. If possible, it's always good to design the tasks so that they are as real as possible, so I'm glad you think it worked out well this time 🙂 What do you think about the lack of gap-fill?

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