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Learning through the unknown

From a pair of trainers to the Loch Ness monster, Wayne Trotman looks at unusual teaching tactics

HISTORY’S MYSTERIES

Created by Taylor Sap with Catherine Noble, Peter Lacey, Mina Gavell and Andrew Lawrence Alphabet Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-956159-00-4

If asked to research, discuss and try to solve some of history’s biggest puzzles, I wonder how many learners of English would turn down the opportunity to do so; not many that I can readily think of.

In fact, puzzles are the central theme to this title, another great resource from the publishers who brought us the enticing Stories Without End (see EL Gazette issue 467), in which learners were asked to write endings to weird and wonderful tales. As many of the lengthy readings in History’s Mysteries involve monsters, murderers, disappearances, aliens, witches and ghosts, reviewing this material made a wonderful change from my recent focus on pedagogic tomes on drilling and 21st-century skills. Put simply, I was engrossed by the mysteries and can guarantee your classes will be, too.

First things first; the purpose of the readings is to create history-themed topics which, by capturing and holding learners’ attention, help develop a variety of language skills. Each chapter is organised in the same way. Open-ended topics titled ‘Your Briefing’, such as the real identity of serial killer Jack the Ripper, are preceded by questions to engage the reader. Also included are short tasks with a focus on lexis needed to process the texts which each range from 300-800 words. The ‘Your Mission’ section is the most appealing, since here learners are asked, for example, how they might prevent the assassination of JFK. Following each text is a comprehension quiz, then discussion questions. But that’s not all!. To complete each theme, learners are able to choose a related follow-up project from three options.

The opening focus is on Monsters and Mysterious Creatures, such as dinosaurs, the Loch Ness Monster and the ancient ape known as Bigfoot. Included are photos of each for learners to discuss. As related tasks involve questions like ‘What are the benefits of studying dinosaurs and their extinction?’, and vocabulary tasks with work on items such as ‘diverse’, ‘emissions’ and ‘asteroids’, we can surmise that material is aimed at adult learners who already possess a decent amount of English language skills, perhaps at good intermediate level and beyond.

Other themes include Heroes and Villains, where we find work on a certain Adolf Hitler. In all my years in ELT (touching 40, if you must know) until now I can’t ever recall any language-teaching material involving such a figure. Learners are asked how they might stop Hitler from causing the deaths of so many innocent people. That’s fine, though some of the questions here might not go down too well, in particular those on the topic of military coups. Teachers in countries where they have recently occurred would probably be looking for another job soon after delving into that area.

“I think we’d all agree that writing this up might be more interesting than 
filling in the gaps on a grammar worksheet”

My favourite puzzle, admittedly a rather ghoulish one, is ‘Floating feet’, which concerns Reebok training shoes washed up on the beach off the coast of Vancouver. Nothing too unusual about that, you might think, until further reading discloses how sticking out of the trainers were human feet. The appearance of such items is apparently quite common. Explanations are given on pages 88-89 of this book. Suicides or accidents? The learner’s mission here is to interview locals, police and others. I think we’d all agree that writing this up might be more interesting than filling in the gaps on a grammar worksheet.

A degree of caution is advised in dealing with the material in this resource. As much
of the above might well indicate, several topics would be unsuitable in a school classroom. They would, however, be excellent material for sparking enthusiasm on a university preparatory-year course in language classrooms filled with sluggish learners glued to their phones. In the right hands, I would strongly recommend this title.

Wayne Trotman is a teacher educator at Izmir Katip Çelebi University, Izmir, Turkey.

Images courtesy of PHOTO BY PIXABAY and Ron
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Wayne Trotman
Wayne Trotman
Wayne is a teacher educator at Izmir Katip Celebi University in Izmir, Turkey. Wayne has been involved in language teaching both in the UK and overseas since 1981. He holds an MSc in TESOL from Aston University and a PhD in ELT and Applied Linguistics from the University of Warwick.
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