Friday, March 31, 2006

the two-headed monster

The Two-headed Monster exercise is an English class variation of a number I've seen on the improv show "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" It's actually a pretty dynamic way to make students aware of the grammatical and pragmatic elements of a conversation.

The setup is simple: students are grouped into pairs (or trios, if the class has an odd number of students) and are told that they are now fused together and have become two-headed monsters. The monster, unfortunately, has a problem: each head can utter only one word at a time.

A dialogue between two monsters might go something like this:

Monster 1
Head A: What
Head B: did
Head A: you
Head B: do
Head A: last
Head B: night?

Monster 2
Head A: I
Head B: didn't
Head A: do
Head B: anything
Head A: special.

The exercise makes students keenly aware of the grammatical constraints that determine what eventual form a given utterance might take. It also encourages students to understand how one instinctively "thinks through" a question by making the communicative process occur in slow motion. This in turn introduces them to pragmatics, because while a question "speaks itself into existence," students gain an increasingly clear idea of where the question is going. This, then, helps determine what utterance the other monster makes.

The improv nature of the exercise is important because it coaches students to think on their feet instead of relying on either a teacher or a text. In a class of twelve students, six monsters can mix and converse comfortably in monster-pairs. If you have ten students, the monsters will have to figure out how, exactly, they will form their conversational clusters.

The exercise can also be fused with more conventional exercises. For example, ESL/EFL students routinely do role-playing and task-oriented exercises, and these can be adapted to the Two-headed Monster scenario. Monsters at a picnic! Mommy and Daddy Monster interact with Baby (or Teen) Monster! Monsters go shopping! Monsters go on a trip! Monsters reenact scenes from famous movies! Monsters interview shady politicians! Or, for advanced students, Monsters try to tell each other riddles or speculate on what life would be like with only one head!

The Two-headed Monster exercise does have a major drawback, though: if you do it for too long, some students will find it tedious. As with the "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" act, the exercise shouldn't drag on and on. It should also be used sparingly, i.e., not as an activity you do every single day.

Aside from that, I highly recommend this exercise to English teachers. Improv comedy is a rich source of exercises for English class, by the way. Watch some improv and you'll see all sorts of potential activities for your students.


No comments: