Author: Angel Anderson

Did you know that people weigh less in some parts of Canada than anywhere else in the world (due to weaker gravity)? Or that in certain archery competitions, the competitors must start by making their own bows? Well, I didn’t until some days ago when some of my teenage students told me so. And how did they know? Because they are inquisitive – and also because they were completing a task I gave them.


But why is this important, you may ask. What relevance, in an English class – especially an exam-preparation class, is knowing that a cumulus cloud weighs as much as eighty elephants? More than you might think!


With ever younger students following high level courses, one of the additional problems that hinders progress is their (understandable) lack of knowledge of the world around them. If you’ve been near a language teaching course, or even a teacher’s book, you’ll no doubt be familiar with the instruction ‘activate schemata’ before a reading or listening. Once you’ve realised that this means linking to prior knowledge, you’ll also quickly realise that the vast majority have no prior knowledge of the subject in question – and it’s not their fault. How can we, as English teachers, help them? By showing that, indeed, It is a Big World (the title of TCEC’s exclusive KET-CLIL coursebook) out there, full of interesting things from science, humanities and the Arts, and not by shrugging our shoulders and saying “well, I’m just the English teacher.”


“How can I be expected to know that the blue whale, despite being the largest animal ever to have existed on our planet, cannot swallow anything larger than a grapefruit? I’ve spent all my life studying English!” you might say. And quite rightly. But now you are a teacher, and we have to think outside that box. Even if you know little about the world out there, you can show that curiosity did not kill the cat (and it didn’t – the original expression was care killed the cat) and there’s nothing better than finding out new things and -why not?- learning together.


“So how can I start?” Well that’s easy… set homework or class web quests that stimulate our students’ inquisitiveness. Instead of asking them to find five facts about the Amazon (if, of course, they’re about to read about it), ask them to find five interesting facts about the aforesaid river. Unfortunately, however, it won’t take them long learn to google 5 curiosidades del rio amazonas,  quick google-translate and job done. So maybe not so easy after all!


I organise term team general knowledge competitions, with a prize for the winners – usually some sweets or chocolates (be careful with allergies!). But competitions can lead to more problems than solutions; while they can motivate some, they can do the exact opposite for others. This is easily overcome with wide-ranging questions so nobody feels left out (even if it means, in my case, learning about football, present-day popular culture and theoretical physics) and having, let’s call it, a fluid scoring system. I heartily recommend watching some of the BBC’s QI series (widely available on YouTube or BBC iPlayer) to get an idea of random scoring. I also throw in the now famous are you complaining? forfeit as well as the are you speaking Spanish? or are you telling me what to do?. Students of all ages quickly get used to it and now rarely does a class draw to a close without someone saying “questions, profe! and nobody complaining. Back this up with homework challenges to find out something about something the teacher doesn’t know for extra points. And if you’re beginning to feel this isn’t within your remit, you can then get them to find something new and bring in five words or expressions that were new to them to share with (and/or teach to) the class.


Apart from fomenting group building and teamwork, it also helps them to change their attitudes to the world outside the class, textbook and exam, so the next time they come across some weird and wonderful topic in an exam reading, use of English, or listening (FCE Gingko Tree springs to mind) the reaction is not automatically a Spanish expletive.


So, trivia is not trivial – and I encourage you and your students to get curious, explore the world and above all keep learning! Everything!