This activity was developed for a group of students who had big problems with understanding texts, but it has also been used for translating skills, originality, elaboration, critical thinking or team work since, so now, it is difficult to say, what exactly it focuses on. Let´s say it is “multi-focal” and we can choose.
The basic idea behind is the idea that may be clear to us, language teachers, but may be hidden to some language learners: the idea that language is actually a system of codes that are constantly being encoded and decoded, and learning a language can basically be a “breaking-the-code” experience.
1) In this activity, students are first shown the picture below and asked what they think it could be.
They usually come up with all types of responses but in all groups so far, there has always been someone who relatively soon suggests it could be a story. When we know it is a story, students are asked what they think the story could be about. We usually get bits of the story – whether they are close to the original or not is irrelevant, since this is just an introduction to the whole activity.
2) Students watch the original (a section from Rives´ “A Story ofMixed Emoticons” TED talk) and see if they were close to the original at least in some parts.
3) Students work in groups. They are asked to:
3.1. create their own original story;
3.2. write it down in their own invented “coding system”.
- The criteria for codes can vary. Normally, there is no need to limit students, but if they ask what they can or cannot use, we usually tell them they can use letters of all alphabets, digits, pictograms, icons, emoticons, sings, pictures, lines, simply anything; the only rule should be, if letters, digits or other well-known things are used, they should not form know words or should not be used in the way they usually are in an everyday life. Unless we test originality, students do not have to respect these limits, usually they are creative enough to invent something that is not directly clear to the reader, which is the point.
- We have tried this activity with groups of all levels. It works with both beginners and advanced. Only the complexity of ideas in the original stories differs.
4) Groups exchange their stories and try and decode them.
5) The same groups are given a complex text difficult to understand.
6) The difference between the work with text and “coded story” is compared.
This activity can be used for different purposes and that is why it can be stopped after any step.
We can use only point one to stimulate discussion;
we can move to the point two for the purposes of comparison or language use;
we can focus on the point three to activate students´ original thinking;
we can enjoy the point four to illustrate principles of encoding and decoding;
or we can go through all points to show students what barriers may prevent them from being effective language users.
Actually, points 4-6 were the original focus of this activity.
Every time we do it, the procedure is more or less the same: Students have great fun when decoding texts invented by other students – they usually laugh, are full of energy and come up with a positive response, I mean, they usually say something like “...we are not sure but, we believe that it is about this or that”. They present their version and are not afraid of being wrong.
However, when a complex (especially academic) text is given to the group, the energy drops down, the work is silent, involves no laughing and very often, students come up with a negative response, I mean, they say something like “...sorry, we do not know what it is all about, it is too difficult...”. In other words, they are afraid to be wrong and do not want to present their version.
This comparison is essential – when this difference in approach occurs (which is, unfortunately, in too many cases, in my opinion), it is a great start for two types of questions:
1) Why did you enjoy decoding a system you saw for the first time in your life (invented by your colleagues now); did you look for positive solutions; and were you not afraid to be wrong?
2) And why did you not apply the same strategy to a system you know much better (any learner at any level of language is always better in that language than in that invented coded system of other students); why is it not fun? Why are you afraid to be wrong?
This discussion usually opens an area of all types of barriers to not only creativity but also language use. The reward is, when students get the point, a change of the whole atmosphere in the class and of even whole students´ attitude to language learning in some cases.