On Monday I shared with you two of the activities my beginning and intermediate students like for practicing cause and effect. While cause and effect pictures (digital version) and Childhood Trouble Cover Up Game (digital version) are great for these students, they aren’t rigorous enough for my more advanced students. One thing I can count on every time I see cause and effect in an advanced textbook is a lot of rolling eyes and a chorus of, “This is so easy!” Of course that’s the standard response of middle schoolers to just about everything…but my college students have always had basically the same reaction to the topic of cause and effect, so at least some of the blame has fall to the topic and teaching methods. A few years ago I tired of my standard, “Ah, the sound of whining middle schoolers in the morning, better than coffee!” response, and tried something new. The results were amazing, and I’d like to share my lesson idea with you.
My new lesson plan revolved around one of my favorite children’s books of all time, The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash, by Trinka Hankes Noble. If you’re not familiar with the book, a little girl comes home from school and tells her mom all about the class field trip to a farm. The trip was quite the adventure because one student, Jimmy, brought his pet boa constrictor along and all kinds of trouble ensued. I’m not entirely sure what inspired me to use this book for my cause and effect lesson, but I suspect I was just looking for any excuse to share it with my students. I love sharing my favorite picture books with my older learners, and they love hearing them. As immigrants and English language learners, many of them have never read the books, and being familiar with childhood classics helps them connect with their English-speaking peers. My adult learners like reading the books in class and then going home and sharing them with their children. It gives them something proactive they can do to be part of their children’s English education.
The beginning of the lesson tends to go very similarly to every other lesson I’ve taught on cause and effect to advanced learners. I explain what we are going to be working on, they roll their eyes, and I wait for the whining sound to decrease to a reasonable level. Then I play my trump card. I tell them that there is only one activity for the class period, they can work in groups if they chose, and as soon as they are finished they can go (or have free time for middle school). Suddenly they are all sitting up straight, pencils in hand, and declaring, “I’ll be done in five minutes! Who wants to go for coffee?”
We begin the lesson with me reading the book aloud to them (this is their favorite part and they often ask me to read just for fun). Then we have a very brief discussion about how one cause’s effect often becomes the cause for another effect, which becomes the cause for another effect. I show them a cause and effect chain graphic organizer/flow chart, and explain how they work. Then I give them their assignment for the class period: create a cause and effect chain for the events in The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash. Turn it in to me, and if it’s at least 90% correct, they will be finished for the day. I pass out copies of the book and a graphic organizer I use for this purpose (paper version is included in the comprehension activities packet and a digital version is also available), though you could allow students to create their own chain by drawing boxes and arrows on a piece of paper. The students get to work and, other than answering the occasional procedural or vocabulary question, I am able to observe and catch up on work around the room.
I’ve been doing this lesson for years, and I’ve never once had a group finish in less than twenty minutes. It’s one thing to identify cause and effect in a single sentence or short paragraph, it’s a far more difficult thing to diagram out a complete story. This book adds an extra challenge because, while the events are clearly described, they are told in a somewhat reverse order. Some of the events cause more than one effect, or happen simultaneously, and I encourage students to modify their chains as necessary to show these connections. As long as they are able to connect the various causes and effects in generally the right order, I give them credit. By the time I introduce the lesson, the students whine, we read the book, they work in groups, and we discuss our final chains as a class, a 45 minute period is filled.
While I can’t guarantee that your students will, like many of mine, leave saying, “Wow, that was so hard!” I do think they will leave with a new appreciation for how cause and effect can be used to tell a good story. Go ahead and give cause and effect chains a try, what do you have to lose? Happy teaching, everyone.
FYI: As of next week, I’ll be making a couple of small changes to my blog posting routine. I’m only going to be posting once a week, and those posts will be coming on Wednesdays.