Lesson plans

Desert Island Discs – conditionals, micro-listening and music

Photo by Asad Photo Maldives on Pexels.com

I’m a huge fan of Desert Island Discs. If you haven’t heard of it, here’s quick breakdown: a celebrity, referred to as a castaway, is interviewed on BBC Radio 4, and is asked which 8 discs they would take with them if they were cast away to a desert island. The 8 tracks are played throughout the course of the interview, and the castaway answers the interviewer’s questions about their childhood and career. One of the things I love about the programme is the variety of castaways that are interviewed: David Attenborough, Dawn French, Malala Yusafzai, David Olusoga, Professor Averil Mansfield… the list is endless!

I’ve used extracts from episodes of Desert Island Discs with adults and teenagers to practice conditionals, work on their listening and pronunciation skills, and talk about their favourite music. A little bit of everything! I thought I’d share the plan here for you to try out with your own students. The episode I’ve had the best response to with both adults and teenagers is Ed Sheeran’s (well worth a listen!) which was recorded in 2017. Click on the link to go the episode page.

Before the lesson: I made a quick list of the 8 tracks that he chose. If you go to the DID website and click on the episode of your choice, the list for each guest will be there. So I found the 8 tracks on YouTube and embedded short extracts into a PowerPoint. If that’s too fiddly, you can make a playlist on YouTube or Spotify with the 8 tracks, and make sure your playlist is ready to go when you start the lesson.

Prior knowledge: this lesson works best if you’ve covered second conditionals. Strong B1 and confident B2 students should be able to handle the grammar in the discussion stages.

  1. Lead-in: show them a picture of Tom Hanks from the film Castaway and elicit what’s happened and where he is now. Explain to your students that they will all be castaways, but they will be able to take 8 discs to a desert island with them.
  2. Discussion and prediction: tell your students that they will hear 8 extracts from 8 songs chosen by a castaway. At this point, don’t tell them they’re Ed Sheeran’s choices. Play short sections of each song, and ask the students to write one or 2 words about how the music makes them feel or what it reminds them of. Adult students might recognise some of the songs, but I found that teenagers mostly didn’t (which in a way is better – there’s nothing like seeing a teenager’s face light up when they hear the opening bars of Leila by Derek and the Dominos for the first time). When you’ve got through all 8 extracts, get your students to share their thoughts on how they felt with each piece. Ask them to guess how old the castaway is. Then show them a picture of Ed Sheeran! My students have always been shocked that someone so young would choose what they called “old songs” (their words, not mine).
  3. Gist: I found that learners of all ages reacted really positively to Leila, so I chose to focus on that segment of the interview. It starts around the 4:45 mark, and stops around 5:25. I ask learners to listen and write notes on why the song is important to him. He mentions a riff and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee (in 2002); you may want to pre-teach these items, or maybe see if the students pick up on them and you can discuss them together.
  4. Gap fill: at this point, I ask my students to discuss how easy Ed Sheeran is to understand, and to think about why this is. I show them the gap fill on the board/screen. We listen to the segment of the interview again and they have to decide how many words they hear in each gap. Because this segment is chock-a-block full of juicy examples of connected speech (yay!), they often struggled to decode what they heard into separate words. Tell your students to read through what they’ve written on their own, and decide if it makes sense. If they want to make any changes, they can, but they have to listen again to check. Here’s the gap fill:
  1. Feedback: after they’ve peer checked, you’ve played the segment again and they’ve peer checked again, show them the answer key.
  2. Pronunciation: play the segment again and get students to identify what makes the words in the gaps sound rushed. They usually point out the weak form of “going to” as “gonna”, and “want to” as “wanna”. Drill these forms, and get students to pretend to be Ed Sheeran and read the script aloud. It’s a great segment to practise those pesky shwas! For strong students, elicit why he says “wanna play guitar” and “want to be a musician” – elicit the emphasis he places on “want” to give strength to his statement. Often learners don’t realise that we do this in English and how it can change the emphasis of what you’re trying to convey. Here’s the answer key:
  1. Discussion: project or write the following questions on the board/screen. This is where conditionals come in handy!

I found that students struggled to choose 8 tracks during the lesson, so question 4 was a more general discussion of songs they would like to take with them. Their homework was to then choose 8 specific tracks and explain why they would take those to a desert island. The start of the next lesson was set aside to discuss their choices. In face-to-face classes, I let students use their phones and headphones to play short sections of their songs to their classmates if they didn’t know the songs on their lists. This actually works better on Zoom, where students can go into breakout rooms, share YouTube links or their screens, and listen that way.

My top episode picks: David Attenborough, Malala Yousafzai, Helen McCrory, Yusuf Cat Stevens, Bernardine Evaristo, Helen Fielding, Daniel Radcliffe, Nadiya Hussain, Levi Roots, Dame Judi Dench… I’ll stop there for now. There are SO many more!

My 8 tracks: Vienna (Billy Joel), Cold Little Heart (Michael Kiwanuka), Riptide (Vance Joy), Move On Up (Curtis Mayfield), Town Called Malice (The Jam), We Are the Champions (Queen), King (Years & Years) and Get Away (George Ezra).

What would your 8 tracks be if you were cast away to a desert island? Comment below!

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