Space: The Eternal Frontier

17 Apr

A lesson about writing magazine articles using a text from science magazine Cosmos. This is an FCE or CAE exam lesson, although it could also be useful to higher level general English classes

C50_cover_LR_RGB-149x179I’ve been set a new challenge recently: my main class is now an exam class. Difficult, because the exam itself (FCE) does not use authentic texts, but instead uses contrived, graded texts. How, then, can studying authentic texts be useful? Surely, I need to be preparing my students for the graded language they will encounter during the exam, rather than preparing them to read real life texts?

Well, yes, I do. And I have subsequently returned to relying a lot more on example texts in coursebooks, regrettably. I could, right here, start my trademark rant about the massive negative effect of using graded texts for exams, but instead I’ll try and focus on the positive!  I have made a conscious effort to smuggle some authentic texts in to the exam classroom, so that what they are learning might benefit their general lives as well as their exam score.  So, here is an example of how I’m doing this.

For this lesson, I needed to teach them to write an article (a common FCE/CAE task) (At the beginning of the lesson my student joked that he already knew how to write an article, and proceeded to write ‘the’ on the board, a joke which I found much funnier than the other students!). The coursebooks seem to be full of very badly written ‘example’ articles. I give my students more credit than those coursebook authors do – I think my students are capable of producing genuinely newspaper worthy articles, if they are given newspaper worthy models to look at. So, I found an example of what I thought was a rather finely written article, and we focused on the author’s style and technique before students wrote their own article copying the features of the original.  You might call this a genre based approach to writing: students are looking at a model to inform them how to write in that genre themselves.

I should point out that I chose this text because I liked the style of writing.  The content (its about Space) wasn’t a deciding factor, apart from that I wanted something general.

I only post lessons here which I have tried, and which worked well for my class: when the homework for this lesson came in, I had some really good examples of articles which were written in a really good style (essential for FCE – where answers are graded partly on the suitability of the style and effect on the reader).  They produced articles which were engaging and interesting – in fact, in terms of style,  their final articles were far better than the example answers in the textbook!

A final point here: I post these lessons as an example of how I’m using authentic texts, not necessarily as ‘copy and paste’ lessons for people to copy.  I don’t recommend ever ‘copying and pasting’ lessons off the internet, personally, as there is no such thing as a one size fits all lesson plan.  But, feel free to use the ‘text’ part of the lesson and the questions especially, and if you think of any other questions for the text or adaptations, or you use something similar, please let me know!




1) Show students this clip: ‘The Wonders of the Solar System, After givi


ng their initial reaction, guide students towards a discussion of the pros and cons of space travel (using the opporunity to pre-teach some of the vocabulary from the reading, e.g. harness resources, ecosystems, dystopian, sustain (us) etc.)

2) Students read the abridged version of the article (below), skimming with the questions ‘Is she for or against Space travel? and ‘What are her main reasons?’.

3) Students do the (very difficult) task of putting the missing sentences back in to the article: task one on the worksheet below. (This is a similar task to part two of the FCE reading paper).

4) Students have five-ten minutes to check the meaning of any unknown vocabulary (in an English English dictionary, of course!)

5) Students discuss their reactions to the text and any interesting arguments, or anything they disagreed with.

6) Students are then given an example of an FCE question in which they are asked to write an article (from FCE paper 2 part 2, there are pleanty of examples in the textbooks, past paper books and online!).

7) Ask students to think about what Students go back through the article and answer Task Two on the worksheet. The aim of this task is to make students aware of how the author creates an effective ‘article’ style: the level of formailty and the aspects of genre that make her article stand out and appeal to the reader. Students, of course, should be explicilty aware of the aim of this task whilst they are doing it!

8) Students then return to the FCE question they were given earlier. They are given 10 minutes to plan their answer with a partner.

9) They then go back to the Task Two sheet, looking at question 1 (find examples of…). They write one sentence for their own article which exemplifies each feature. For example, for ‘1) The author speaking directly to the reader.’ They write a sentence where they speak directly to the reader (e.g. ‘Can you imagine a world without mobile phones?’). Encourage them to copy language features from the original text where possible. Correct their sentences as they go!

10) At home, they write their articles including their key sentences.



How this lesson went

If I judge the lesson by its intended outcome: that it would enable students to write a short article in the correct style, then it was successful.  I got 6/6 good attempts at writing an article.

However, this may be a misleading assessment as there were significant bumps along the way. The task where they put sentences back into the text was very, very difficult for them.  I was really stretching myself to provide as much support as possible!  I did take care to only remove sentences which were linked to the text around them (by containing synonmys, for example, like ‘web of life’ and ‘ecosystem’, or by discourse markers like ‘And yet,’), but there was still some ambiguity in the answers.  Still, the feedback produced some interesting discussion about levels of discourse.

More than anything, this lesson is an example of how using authentic texts can be really easy.  It took me, in total,  about 30 minutes to find this text and write the questions.  However, the lesson lasted about  3 hours, and the rest of the lesson plan came was a simple case of building the lesson around the text, which only took a few minutes of scribbling notes.


Abridged Text (This version has some sentences removed, its the version I gave to students)

Eternal frontier
I LOVE OUR PLANET. I love its trees, its mountains, its oceans, its big beautiful skies and its extraordinary diversity of life. What we have on this world is precious — it’s worth cherishing and nurturing.
But that doesn’t mean I think that travelling beyond this planet is a waste of time or resources; or that I think we should instead focus on getting our world right before venturing into space. Did we perfect an idyllic nomadic society before leaving the African plains? Waiting to get our ‘house in order’ will achieve nothing but guarantee the demise and eventual destruction of our planet, our ecosystem and our species. Going into space is one of the best things we can do to save our world, and ourselves.
It’s in our nature to venture out: since the dawn of our species, we have explored, adapted and expanded. Like a teenager experiencing the first flushes of hormones, we have felt powerful and invincible — then slowly grown aware that our behavior and newfound strength can harm others.
It’s because of our extraordinary success, our ability to harness resources and bend them to our will, that we are encroaching on our neighbors. We live in a closed system — the planet Earth — but often behave recklessly as if its resources are limitless.
The solution is not to abandon modern industrial civilisation: we’re not going to give up our cities or technologies. In fact, without the large-scale mechanisation of industry, transport and agriculture, we would be unable to feed our massive and growing population. Going ‘back to nature’ may sound romantic, but would consign billions to starvation.
The first thing to do is reduce our impact on the planet: make technologies more efficient and our cities, transport systems and industrial processes less damaging to ecosystems.
Do we mandate population controls? Do we nominate an arbitrary age at which people need to ‘retire’, as in the dystopian fictional vision of Logan’s Run? Because populations will continue to grow, especially as child mortality falls and science finds ways of extending human lives. The logical thing to do is to expand beyond Earth: to build colonies on Mars, floating habitats in Earth’s Lagrange orbits, mines on the Moon and the asteroids, and expand deeper into our Solar System.
It may sound unappealing to some. But so was the prospect — just a few centuries ago — of a long and arduous journey across treacherous oceans in cramped conditions, only to arrive in a harsh and unforgiving wilderness where conditions were difficult and starvation was a real possibility.
We need to expand into space because Earth alone cannot sustain us. Space provides a pressure valve, but exploring it will also ensure our survival. Because one day, a massive calamity will befall our world — an asteroid strike, ice ages, supervolcanoes, solar bursts or nuclear war — and we may disappear, or our civilisation fall.
Some ask: so what if humans pass into history? It’s not just a tragedy for us, but also one for nature. Without us, there is no one to witness its infinite beauty; no one to marvel at a sunset, revel in a view, or thrill to the breaking of a wave on a beach. As the late astronomer and author Carl Sagan once said, “we are a way for the universe to know itself”.
But we also deserve to continue because we have created things greater than ourselves.
Think of the plays of Shakespeare, the concertos of Bach, the philosophy of Confucius, the epic poetry of Virgil, the suiboku ink painting of Shubun, the fado laments of Amália Rodrigues, the morality tales of Javanese wayang kulit shadow puppetry, the Islamic calligraphy of the Diwani Al Jali style, the novels of Cervantes, the harvest bhangra dances of Pakistan, the rhythms of the didgeridoo, and anything by Leonardo da Vinci.
Even if the cosmos is brimming with other advanced civilisations, we still deserve to be here. Nature in its diversity has made us as we are: we too are children of the universe, and have something to contribute.
Wilson da Silva is the Editor-in-Chief of COSMOS, and the past president of the World Federation of Science Journalists.

A) That’s just plain silly: did we fix Europe before embarking for the Far East and the Americas?
B) In doing so, we have become the most powerful creatures on Earth, capable of splitting the atom and affecting the climate.
C) In the past, we’ve overcome these constraints by expanding into new territories.
E) We rely on the web of life to sustain us: we need bees to pollinate, trees to make oxygen and worms to aerate the soil, or we would swiftly perish.
F) And after that?
G) And yet, tens of thousands of people set off for Australia and North America, among many other places, in search of a new life. Thousands perished. And yet, more came.
H) Not only scientific and engineering knowledge, valuable as this is — we have also created new and beautiful ways to see the world through art, music, literature and performance.

Task Two
1) Find Examples of:
a) The author speaking directly to the reader.

b) The author using slightly less formal language.

c) The author giving the reader an instruction

d) The author pre-empting a criticism

e) The author giving a conrete example

f) The author using an analogy (describing one thing by comparing it to another thing)

2) How often does the writer use ‘I think that’, ‘I feel’, ‘For me’ etc?

3) Overall, how effective do you think the article is?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: