Volume IV - 1997

Encounters with the Automobile: Exploring Practical Content through Multiple Media
by Anne Dorobis

         Anne Dorobis is an English Instructor at the Language Training Institute in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. She holds a master's degree in TESL from Columbia University in New York and has taught at Jersey City State College.

         I teach at a language school in Bergen County, New Jersey. Most of my students are adults, and they come to the school with a variety of needs and backgrounds. Some are college students, some are parents, some are housewives,and some work outside the home. Some are in the USA temporarily, and some will stay forever. Behind all their differences, however, I have recognized one experience they have in common_a close encounter with the automobile. The majority of them are drivers, and over the years they have told me about frustrations they face because of American driving laws and habits. Many of them have had to deal with traffic violations and accidents, and haven't had the necessary English to explain their side of the story to a traffic officer or the other driver involved. Some have gotten quite lost miles from home, and others rely on their spouses to take them to shopping malls or markets, because they are afraid to drive on some of the more intimidating highways. Several have brought parking tickets or registration notices to me for interpretation.

A Felt Need for Confidence

         I saw a great need amongst my students for vocabulary, cultural information and confidence that would allow them to go where they like without discomfort or hesitation. I began pulling together activities for my classes related to these issues, and developed much material of my own. I wanted to be sure my students would have a chance to learn, review, and reuse new vocabulary without getting bored. It was important to allow them to use the new vocabulary they learned in a variety of ways in order to make certain they had learned it. I also wanted to allow for different learning styles so that learners who were more visually or physically oriented could learn in ways that suited them.

The Ubiquitous Car

         Driving and cars are so important in many parts of the USA that you can find materials everywhere. Keep an eye out for TV shows, scenes from movies, advertisements and realia. The next time you get a parking ticket, make a photocopy! It's a great way to teach vocabulary, to explain the ticketing and court system to the students, and to let them see you as a human being. You can "white-out" any information you consider too personal. There are many folk, blues, and country songs about automobiles. You can find articles on driving safety and car-buyer's tips in the annual auto issue of Consumer Reports, and occasionally in family magazines. Following are some activities and materials I have used successfully in a variety of settings, from corporate to traditional classrooms.

         We usually began with a list of warmup questions: students were invited to choose two that they wanted to answer. They discussed their responses with a partner, then with the whole group. I tried to include a variety of questions, so that all students could be included, no matter what their life experiences had been. I found these questions to be successful in bringing forth a variety of language and situation. Since my classes take place near New York City, a place with a whole different style of road survival, I included the city in my questions. The following are examples:

Do you prefer driving in the U.S. or in your country?
Have you ever driven in New York? Would you?
Have you (or your spouse) ever gotten a ticket'? What happened?
What's the worst thing that ever happened to you while driving?
Compare the parking situation in the US and in your country.
What's your opinion of American drivers?
Do you like to go for long rides as the driver?....as a passenger?

         The students' discussion of their chosen questions gave me an idea of their experiences and frustrations related to driving. It activated their prior knowledge of the language they could use to describe the category of experiences involved. It allowed me to see what it was that they needed in order to express themselves more clearly.

Toy Cars Prove Useful

         Since some students learn better when they can physically manipulate materials while talking and listening, I brought in toy model cars in another activity. Each student received a strip of paper with a short written description of an accident. For example, "Another car came into my lane and hit me head-on." The student read the strip out loud, and other students used the toy cars to demonstrate what they thought the sentence meant. Afterwards, I asked volunteers to describe incidents they had witnessed or experienced, while the other students demonstrated with the toy cars. The speaker had to judge if their demonstration was accurate or not. This activity created a connection between spoken and printed language and physical movement. Much of the vocabulary was new for the students, yet when I reviewed it with them a week later, all were able to remember most of the new language. An average of two students in each group (of eight) commented to me later that using the toy cars helped the language make sense to them.

         The activity also brought a lively atmosphere into the classroom. I found even some of my night students in suits and ties, zooming toy cars across the table with "vroom" sound effects. It really brought out a playful spirit! City or county maps can also be used to have students give or follow road directions to get to different familiar places. Students can work in pairs to do information gap activities.

Songs about Cars Introduce American Culture

         Songs used in the classroom provide an opportunity to introduce American culture and music styles, and to teach intonation, rhythmic speech and vocabulary. I chose a song called "Breaking all the Laws" by Kristina Olsen, to use with my classes. It's a fast-paced rhythm and blues song with a lot of expressions pertaining to driving in the lyrics. It could be used for a close, a question and answer exercise, listening for specific language, or a sing-along. I typed the lyrics and cut them into strips, which the students arranged in order while listening. It's a fast song, so it was very challenging. For less proficient students, you could choose a slower song, or simply stop after each line to give them more time. After this activity, many students told me the song's speed pushed them to work faster, and made it fun.

         After hearing the song and doing the strip activity, we reviewed some of the vocabulary. Then, I asked each students to choose one line of the song secretly. I didn't tell them why. They had thirty seconds to draw a picture representing that line, and the others had to guess which line it was. There was a lot of laughter as students tried to draw a comprehensible picture within the time limit. It reinforced vocabulary in a way that appealed to visually-oriented students, who don't always have an opportunity in classes geared towards speaking and listening. The time limit gave an excuse to the less artistic students for a drawing that was less than perfect.

Storytelling, Discussion and Total Physical Response

         To further reinforce the vocabulary they had learned, we used a page from Action English, a picture book by Noriko Takahashi and Maxine Frauman-Prickel. A series of sixteen drawings show a man taking his grandchildren on an outing in their car. It lends itself to storytelling, discussion, or Total Physical Response (Asher). I found that even very advanced speakers benefited from telling the story, since it can be told on a variety of levels to focus on different grammatical points or levels of accuracy and detail. I used a videotaped episode of the television show, Shame on You , which dealt with parking tickets that are unfairly given in New York City. The segment is less than eight minutes long, which I found ideal for my classes. It is a great springboard for discussion of traffic laws, the ticket system, traffic court, and regulations in and out of the city. I used it for a close, omitting idioms and vocabulary useful for drivers. The missing words were listed on a separate page out of order, and students could choose to use the scrambled answer sheet or to try on their own. After completing the close, we discussed the students' experiences with parking in New York and New Jersey, and talked about the procedures for towing and fighting tickets.

         We also used an article from News For You, an English language newspaper designed for students. The article, entitled "American Live in Their Cars," is about many things American drivers can be seen doing in their cars (in addition to driving) such as eating, putting on makeup, smoking, and talking on the phone. This generated a lot of talk about driving safety. We used a diagram of a car to learn the names of parts such as the steering wheel, hubcap, hood and ignition. In the class that followed, I took the students out to the parking lot to my car and had them point to different parts and name them. We also talked about how I got that scratch on my right fender. That gave them a chance to give me some advice,which they enjoyed.

A Topic for all Seasons

         These activities worked with students from low-intermediate to high- advanced levels. All the students had either been drivers, passengers, car buyers or pedestrians, and could relate to the issues personally. We found that repetition of new vocabulary through a variety of activities helped students remember what they had learned in lessons that followed. The inclusion of manipulatives, video, audio, pictures and maps gave students opportunities to learn through visual, physical and linguistic means, and to explore connections between language and the physical world. Many of my students have commented that the activities were useful for them, and that they feel more confident as drivers finding their way on the highways of New Jersey.


Takahashi, Noriko and Maxine Frauman-Prickel. Action English Pictures. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1985

Crookes, Graham and Craig Chaudron. Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, 2nd edition. Mariane Celce-Murcia, editor. Boston, Mass: Heinle and Heinle, 1991.

Keltner, Autumn and Gretchen Bitterlin. English for Adult Competency. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1981. News for You

Olsen, Kristina. "Breaking All the Laws." Cupid is Stupid. Venice, California: Take a Break Productions. 1987.

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