If you've ever taught third through fifth grade, your teaching arsenal is probably full of simple, low-prep exercises to help developing readers understand complex close reading concepts. But every now and then it's good to shake things up and keep your kids on their toes with an activity that totally (temporarily!) disrupts routine. For an unconventional take on a language arts project, consider giving your class the "Feed the Alien!" exercise, which incorporates individual writing work, an interactive participation component, and class discussion to help kids understand the process of inference and the difference between explicit and implicit information in a text. It's messy and chaotic and will take up a good chunk of your day, but it's totally worth it—your students will go home with a better understanding of implication and inference, and it's a lesson they won't easily forget!
Part One: Individual Writing Component
The day before you plan to do this exercise in class, send your students home with a short, seemingly simple writing assignment. You can give your students more than one night to complete this assignment if you feel they need it, but the exercise works best when students aren't given much opportunity to obsess over the details of the written component. On the other hand, if you're working with quick writers, you can give them the assignment in class and designate some time for them to complete it, then begin the exercise immediately afterward.
Here's the prompt: An alien from outer space has just appeared in your kitchen! Luckily the alien speaks English, but it does not know anything about planet Earth. The alien has traveled a long way and is very hungry. You give the alien everything it needs to make a delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich: a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, a bag of sliced bread, a knife, and a plate. _But the alien doesn't know what to do! Explain to the alien how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich._
Part Two: Class Collaboration Component
You'll need a friend, family member, or other adult colleague with a good sense of humor to help you with Part Two. Once you've collected your students' written work, introduce the "alien" into your classroom by having your assistant knock at the door at a designated time. This is a sillier-the-better situation, and most kids will really appreciate it if the "alien" is wearing funny antennae or face paint. Set up a work station for the "alien" with the exact items listed in the writing prompt.
At this point, you can begin reading out some of your students' written instructions. Your assistant should act out the instructions very literally, inferring nothing that wasn't made explicit in students' writing—for example, if a student instructs the "alien" to "put the peanut butter on the bread," the "alien" should put the entire jar of peanut butter on top of the unopened loaf, since the "alien" was never told to open the jar, scoop out the peanut butter with the knife, etc.
Most of your students will likely make the same assumptions about what is and isn't implied when they're writing out their instructions, so you'll only need to read a few to make the point—be sure to stop before the novelty of the "alien's" confusion wears off! After a couple of rounds of sandwich catastrophes, reincorporate your students into the exercise by inviting them to create a more thorough set of instructions in real time. A little controlled chaos can be a good thing here, and having kids shout out new steps and modifications to the instructions as they try to prevent the "alien" from making another mistake usually encourages them to think on their feet. The exercise should end with a successful peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so discuss with your assistant ahead of time how detailed an instruction needs to be for the "alien" to understand it, since this activity could hypothetically go on forever if the "alien" is, say, expecting the students to explain which muscles it needs to use to open a jar. The point is not to make the task feel impossible!
Part Three: Class Discussion Component and Optional Follow-Up Work
Once the "alien" has headed back to its home planet and your classroom has settled down, talk to your students about the gap between what they explained and what the "alien" understood. What parts of the instructions were they able to make explicit? What were the things they assumed the alien would understand on its own, and why was this their assumption? Where in their written instructions did they think they'd implied or given "clues" about the things they hadn't described in detail?
If you want to wrap up the activity with some quiet reading to help students transition back to everyday classroom routines, you can use this time to reinforce the concepts of imply/infer that you worked on during the exercise. Since these concepts are applicable to any text your students might read, it doesn't matter what material you give them here—it can be something alien- or food-related, or it can be reading for other classwork you plan to do that day. As you distribute reading material to the students, encourage them to keep the "alien" in mind. Are there things in the text your students are reading that they understand but that the "alien" would not be able to interpret? How do they understand these things?
Inference can be a tricky concept to grasp because it's something most of your students are already doing it without realizing it. Nothing better highlights the difference between information that's explicitly stated in a text and information that's implied than creating a situation in which the ability to infer is taken away. The Feed the Alien! exercise achieves that condition in such a memorable way that your students might find themselves asking "what would the alien think?" in text analysis exercises for years to come.
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