Masaryk University Faculty of Arts


How to Work With A Symbolic Frame



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2.2. How to Work With A Symbolic Frame


This chapter serves as a bridge between the theoretical and the practical part. The concepts that lay behind the ideal of a symbolic frame have already been discussed. The following section describes the actual methodology through which the symbolic frame is formed. Since for the practical part a literary symbolic frame is chosen, there are some reasons and concepts of teaching given with the use of literature that supports this choice.

2.2.1. Suitable Literary “Frames” (Books)


While choosing the frame that corresponds to students needs and interests, the actual literary text that is going to be used for this frame must be considered as well. Christine Nuttall, for example, suggests looking at possible reading material from the following three points of view; readability, suitability of content and exploitability. For the suitability of content see chapter 2.2.2. on the lesson preparation. In this chapter the other two criteria are explored in a greater detail.

The readability of the text is its structural difficulty and also the difficulty of the vocabulary used. In this case, the teacher has many options for choosing the most suitable text for the students. Teacher’s choice is mainly influenced by the purpose for which the text will be used in the language teaching. Types of texts connected to the symbolic frame and also appropriate for the lessons are usually taken from authentic material or from graded readers. The text could then be used for analysis with students in class or students might simply read it for pleasure. For evaluation of readability of authentic text SMOG index can be used. SMOG index is a formula by which it is possible to count the difficulty of any text for a student of English.6

Exploitability is another very important indicator not only for choosing the text but also for turning this text into a symbolic frame. If the symbolic frame should be more long-term, the literary text must match certain criteria to be able to fully serve its purpose. From my experience of lesson creation, I would suggest the following criteria, but it is not necessary for the literary text to match all of them simultaneously. First of all, it should be a story with turning points. Secondly, the story should have an interesting background. Finally, there should be strong characters in the story. It can be said that these criteria cover most of the different topics of any sort of lesson. The interesting background refers to the world around us or it can also cover imaginary or historical places. The strong characters cover the topics about people and society. And turning points refer to actions that are experienced by the people in the environment.

The characters, environment and turning points, however, should not be chosen randomly. By the criterion “story with turning points” it is meant a story which is not monotonous or easily predictable. If the story line is thrilling and has many turning points, students cannot guess what is going to happen next. This stirs their imagination and makes them to look forward to the next lesson. Additionally, it might be an excellent reward for doing the homework, or a driving force for students to work on a project. The second criterion “interesting background” represents the setting of a literary text. Within the symbolic frame, students can explore the world that the story takes place in. They can therefore learn more about geography or different cultures. The world of the story can also be different from the normal world that students live in. In this way they can look into history, the future, or to different countries. The frame of the setting might serve as a great support for the teacher planning the lesson, if there are some problematic topics that cannot be adapted or linked to the story the teacher can just invent it within the frame of the world of the book. It might also serve as a good starter for students’ projects. The last criterion named “strong characters” represents the characters of the literary text. These should be characters that students can identify with, share their feelings, dreams and expectations, or they could perhaps be some famous people that they would look up to. In a case of negative characters teachers should be aware of not putting them into the position of role models for students. However even the negative characters should not be shallow. They should be interesting, intriguing and really malicious.



Symbolic frames can also have a different level of interactivity. Christine Nuttal in Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language claims that reading is an interactive process and teachers should not make students just “consumers”. This is certainly true for the symbolic frame lessons as well. Even when teachers choose a linear story as the basis of their lessons, this story must be interactive in order to function as a symbolic frame. Even though the ending of the story is given from the beginning, students do not know this. Their approach to the story is new. Students should also be able to interact with the characters of the story. They can either communicate with them through letters or they can even virtually become a part of the story and help the characters in certain situations. For example if the book The Lord of The Rings was chosen as a symbolic frame, students can become part of the fellowship of the ring and therefore escort Frodo to Mordor or Aragorn to Minas Tirith. While becoming a part of the story, students can live through it alongside the main characters and in this way help the characters in many situations on the way. Sometimes, if suitable, students can even substitute for main character by becoming the main characters themselves and almost literally acting in the story.
      1. Preparation of the Lessons


Once the suitable frame is chosen, it is important to bear in mind some rules for lesson preparation. The ten rules I provide here I took from the book Symbolický rámec podle 3.B written by Kateřina Hořavová and Petr Klápště. These ten rules were then adapted to suit the ELT purposes. The rules are the following:

  1. Aims (what are the aims of your lesson/s?)

  2. Finding an attractive symbolic frame (What attracts children of the age that you are teaching? What's IN and OUT?)

  3. Choosing the correct frame (Is the frame correct from the point of educating children? Will it encourage positive behavior?)

  4. Players (Will children mostly work in groups, pairs or separately?)

  5. Form (For how long will you use this frame? Will students be able to influence the story or not?)

  6. Environment (Environment of the story and little things around... notice boards, cards etc.  - they help draw students into the story)

  7. Peaks (Where does the story have emotional peaks? - the most memorable lessons)

  8. Plan (create the skeleton of the story and add activities according to your aims)

  9. Libretto (details are important!)

  10. Materials (create and choose carefully the materials you'll use)

The following adds more information about these points and attempts to link them to the process of the creation of English lessons. Where possible, the links to more extensive sources about the given topic are added, because for the purpose of this thesis it was not possible to explore in detail all the various methodologies that the symbolic frame makes use of.

  1. Aims

The aims of the lesson are what students will learn by the end of the lesson. The aims should be in correspondence with the curriculum and with the students’ needs. The best way of creating the aims for the course, or even for the individual lesson, is to use the method of SMART goal creation. “The acronym SMART […] can be used to provide a more comprehensive definition for goal setting: S – specific M – measurable A – attainable R – relevant T - time-bound“ (Haughey, Project SMART). Specific goals can be written down and their outcome is assessable. By a goal being measurable it is meant the exact knowledge of what should be achieved by the students and also the process of assessment of students’ achievements. An attainable goal is a reasonable one, where no miracles in development of students’ knowledge are expected, without the teacher underestimating students and providing them with challenging lessons. A relevant goal is one that respects students’ needs and responds to them. Finally, every goal should be time-bound, and once it is formulated, there should be an estimated time of its completion. When creating a lesson or preparing the whole curriculum both, long-term and short-term aims should be considered. In connection with the symbolic frame it should be made clear if the frame is supposed to have any educational purpose besides the mere framing of the lesson, or if it is even supposed to provide a link to other subjects.

  1. Attractive Symbolic Frame

A symbolic frame, as it was said before, can be taken basically from anywhere; history, music, culture, literature or even thought up by the teacher himself. The easiest method for the teacher to get inspiration for symbolic frame lessons is in literature, because it is the most comprehensive source. It covers basically any field of human knowledge. By using a literary model, the teacher’s work is made easier, because he does not have to think up the frame himself. The use of a literary model, if it is introduced effectively, encourages students who become interested in the frame to read about it and adds another “reading dimension” to learning. Within the literary story the teacher should consider all the aspects mentioned in chapter 2.2.1. about the suitable frames. Christine Nuttal in the first chapter of her book Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language says that as well as reading is an interactive process, symbolic frame should be too, so that students are not just “consumers”. Therefore, the teacher, while choosing the suitable frame, should have already considered if there is a possibility to turn this frame into an interactive lesson.

It is not always easy to choose an attractive symbolic frame. In order to choose something captivating the teacher must know students’ preferences. With a class of new students it is recommended to first discover students’ interests and priorities, before making a decision about suitable symbolic frame. If under a time pressure, the suitable frame can be chosen by taking into consideration the age, gender, education, surroundings and culture of the students.



  1. Choosing the Correct Symbolic Frame

Choosing an attractive symbolic frame is only the first step. The second step is to choose a correct frame considering the educational aims, the level of English students have and their age. The correct frame should also be in correspondence with values that the children are taught. As Chris Rowley and Hilary Cooper claim, “values are seen as central to the ethos of a school community but often they are learned through relationships established within the classroom to develop mutual respect, and the way the curriculum is organized to promote inclusion.” (Rowley, Cooper 2009: 1) Group work being central to the symbolic frame promotes interaction among the students and with good role models in the teacher and the characters from the story, it also exposes students to the model values. Through the symbolic frame students can be taught to value themselves, society and the environment. Rowley and Cooper call the inclusion of value teaching as “planned purposeful play” which is exactly what a symbolic frame is.

Besides teaching English and values, a symbolic frame can also be used for cross-curricular purposes. Because the tasks of the symbolic frame often involve other subjects, they are suitable for cross-curricular activities. “Interdisciplinary/cross-curricular teaching involves a conscious effort to apply knowledge, principles, and/or values to more than one academic discipline simultaneously. The disciplines may be related through a central theme, issue, problem, process, topic or experience” (Jacobs 1989: 54). Therefore in the symbolic frame the central theme is the frame itself. Students are often challenged with a task derived from a frame that they are required to complete. They must use the foreign language for this as well as knowledge from other subjects. For example in the symbolic frame a hero has an accident and breaks his leg. Students are asked to help him. While resolving the situation students must not only communicate in English, but they also practice their knowledge about first aid.7



  1. Players

This point is in fact just a reminder of previous points. When an attractive and suitable frame is chosen, the teacher must not forget about the students while planning individual lessons and activities. It is important to imagine, how students will react to each situation they are put into. It is also important to bear in mind the number of students in the class. Some activities are only suitable for a small number of students.

A symbolic frame also often creates competitive situations for students in groups, pairs or individuals. Here it is important to consider the age of students as well. According to Klápště and Hořavová, students between the ages of 13-14 (girls a little bit earlier) become less competitive as individual and competition as a motivation works for them better when they are in teams.



  1. Form

A symbolic frame can be used in the classroom in many different ways. Probably the most effective way is to connect through it all the activities that are used in the classroom. However, this option might be too demanding for preparation and probably quite discouraging for inexperienced teachers. For them, it is perhaps the best to frame only certain activities in the classroom, for example a revision part of the lesson, communicative activities, grammar games or even the explanation of new grammar.

There are also two ways on how to approach a symbolic frame. It can be used as a linear story or only as a frame or world where all the classroom activities take place. Both of these approaches have their advantages and disadvantages and both can be used with a literary symbolic frame. A linear story is usually a story that exactly copies the plot of a book, therefore it is easier for the teacher’s preparation. The teacher here also does not have to be very creative because all the details of the story have already been made for him. The danger with working with a linear story however is that if the story is well-known to the students, they might lose interest in the plot. Therefore it is advisable to choose a frame that is not well known to the students. In the practical part of this thesis a linear story has been chosen for the lessons. This story was unknown to the majority of the students and those who knew it were asked not to spoil it for the others.

On the other hand, if the story is not linear and only used as a frame world for classroom activities, it might be better to choose some story that is well-known and also attractive for the students. Then only the “background” of the story is used, not the story itself. As a result, the teacher has freedom to create his or her own story within this world, or even give students the freedom to create their own story. Even though there is a linear story in the practical part of this thesis, there is an attempt to make the most of the background of this story and also to show how it can function if it was used only as a frame.


  1. Environment

A nice and practical classroom environment is one of the key aspects in the process of learning which is unfortunately many times neglected. It is not only about classroom arrangement and classroom management, but also about little things that make learning more memorable and enjoyable. If the symbolic frame is for example from medieval times, it would be nice if the grammar exercise or piece of reading was written on a piece of scroll instead of on a regular paper etc. It does not have to be only the teacher who creates learning environment. Students can also participate by making posters, notice boards, costumes and other things. The more the classroom environment reflects the world of the frame, the more students can be taken by the story and their motivation is enhanced.

Nevertheless, the environment is not only about physical objects. Such as some things that are normally done in the classroom can be named in an attractive way; a vocabulary competition could be a Knight’s tournament in courtly language in the medieval environment.



  1. Peaks

Peaks in the symbolic frame represent the most memorable and enjoyable part of lessons. People’s emotions are not the same all the time, thus neither should lessons be the same all the time with the same level of excitement. Teachers who use a symbolic frame should plan the peaks of their lessons in advance, in order to enhance the attractiveness of their lessons. According to Klápště and Hořavová, the peaks should be chosen in accordance with the process of development of the students as one group that functions together; it is called theory of group dynamics. This theory suggests four stages in the development of a group. The first stage is called “forming” and in this phase students are getting to know each other. In this stage the “program should offer higher number of small tasks in which everyone can try out his role.” (Klápště 28).8 The next stage is called „uprising” and in this stage small groups within the larger group are forming. Students also tend to try teacher’s patience, methods and consistency; therefore some larger and more difficult task should be introduced to students in order to encourage their functioning as a group. This task should be accomplishable so that it does not discourage the group. The third stage is called “normative” and in this stage students function very well as a group. They cooperate and work consistently. In this stage the group welcomes more demanding tasks. The last stage is called “dividing” and it is a time in which the group expects the end of their cooperation, for example at the end of the school year. Students are already thinking about their new roles within new groups. Therefore this stage is the best for evaluation and reflection on the work they have done as a group. According to Klápště and Hořavová, the peaks of a symbolic frame lesson plan should copy the dynamics of the group. The highest peak should occur in accordance with stage three and there should be one small peak at the beginning that basically follows the second stage and one evaluative peak at the end. To find more about creating the peaks see chapter 3.1. of the practical part of this thesis where detailed examples are provided. Also, to see the placement of the emotional peaks in the syllabus and their level of tension see Graph 1 below.

Graph 1: Emotional Peaks According to the Group Dynamics Theory



  1. Plan

This section is about putting all of the previous sections together and forming a consistent lesson plan. Then there should be clear aims for every lesson and every activity that will be done with the students. The teacher should have already decided when he or she wants to integrate the peaks, or in other words the most memorable parts of the lesson. By this time, the teacher should have already agreed on the frame he or she wants to use and what type of frame it will be – linear or merely a framing of the world. It is followed by creating detailed lesson plans which should be derived from all of the things just mentioned. It is up to the teacher if he or she decides to create detailed lesson plans in advance or from lesson to lesson. Teachers should always remember to adjust the lessons to the needs of the students and take the symbolic frame only as an element of motivation. They should never subordinate the lessons to the symbolic frame.

  1. Libretto

Having a lesson plan and all the supporting structures for the symbolic frame, the teacher can finally decide on the details of the frame itself. If the story is linear and directly taken from the book with no changes or just very few, then teachers can skip this step. The step is mainly important for those who decide to adjust the story, or even to create the story themselves. The story, first of all, must be understandable to the students. If the story has too many characters and story lines, students might not be able to follow it. However, the plot should not be too easy and predictable, because the students might get bored. Having some unpredictable turnovers in the plot creates interest and motivation. The story should also resemble the world of students. Of course, with the medieval story we do not copy the world students live in, but there can be some characters that have similar problems or interests as the students do, so that they are able to identify with them.

  1. Materials

There are many supportive materials that teachers can use during their symbolic frame lessons. These can be divided into the following categories: symbolic frame aids, traditional teaching materials, game materials, decorations. Symbolic frame aids are usually some maps of the world which we use for the symbolic frame. From the maps students can better grasp if the characters of the story are moving somewhere or if the story takes place in different locations. Other such aid could be a timeline if the story involves travelling in time. Every symbolic frame course should have a prominent score board or progress board displayed in the classroom. It is an important motivational tool for the students. Considering a type of scoreboard or progress board, the teacher should always make it clear for the students what the rules are for getting points or moving up on the progress board. Symbolic frame aids could also be other interactive things such as a postbox to which students receive letters from some character or perhaps a time machine which always takes them to a different time period. Other things connected to the symbolic frame could be for instance, a course chronicle or a diary, a course website, the outcomes of projects made by students during the course etc. As far as traditional teaching materials, for example the phonetic chart, useful classroom language, posters made by the students and other learning aids are possibilities. Making the materials look more connected to the story the teacher could, decorate them with some topical pictures or example sentences from the frame story. Game materials are usually created before each lesson and they primarily consist of materials needed for games and activities that are done with students in individual lessons. It depends on each teacher how creative these are. It can be mere photocopies from an activity book or the teacher can make his or her own materials and adjust them to the story of a symbolic frame if possible. The experience should be that the more the frame is visible in the materials used, the more students are willing to get absorbed by the story. In the last category of decorations all the decorative devices need to highlight the story of the frame nicely, among these can be some decoration of notice board, costumes, decoration of course materials etc.

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