Learning Sentence Structure with Comic Life

An in depth post by Peter Courtney on Software for Learning presents a great lesson plan for using Comic Life and VoiceThread.

Building knowledge of sentence structure with ELLs students using Comic Life and VoiceThread.

Contributed by Peter Courtney, Hagley Community College, Christchurch

Focusing Inquiry

I have a mixed class of foundation/beginner ELL (English Language Learning) students, who range in ages from 13 to 21 and come from a variety of backgrounds. The majority entered New Zealand as refugees with only a handful of migrants in the class. Most students are in their first year of education in New Zealand. I teach four hours of an intensive 24 hour course for adolescents, which includes English, Science, Maths, P.E. and Art. In the class, we take a thematic approach working across three strands of the ELLP (English Language Learning Progressions).

Integrated into each unit are:

  • text types
  • specific grammar and sentence structure teaching
  • and vocabulary building.

As this is a year 11 course, students also undertake three NCEA level 1 ESOL unit standards in reading, writing and oral communication. In my class, I have access to 16 Macbooks, 5 iMac desktops, 6 ipod touches, digital cameras and a data projector.

Through collecting writing samples of students’ work it became obvious that one area for further development was using the correct word order, as students often reverted to the word order of their first language. Other areas that needed further development were sentence structure, text structure and topic specific vocabulary. The majority of students were at a foundation level in their writing. To complete the level 1 NCEA unit standard, students needed to use simple and compound sentences correctly, as well using the correct features of a recount. Most students also lacked basic computer skills and this became another area of focus for my inquiry.

The class had started working on a unit titled ‘Journeys’ where they would write a recount of their own journey to New Zealand. I decided to use Comic Life as a tool to help build knowledge of both sentence and text structure. As a very visual program, I hoped students would:

Comic Life grid

  • be able to easily connect words and sentences to visual clues to develop their knowledge of structures
  • learn new and broader vocabulary
  • build their confidence in ICT skills.

I planned to use VoiceThread as a tool to develop fluency by having students record their stories to share with other students.

Teaching and learning

 Introduction to Comic Life and simple sentences

I began the unit in class by explicitly teaching the structure of an English sentence, focusing on parts of a sentence including; time, subject, verb, object and place. To reinforce this teaching, I created a set of four by two grids on Comic Life. In each set of four pictures I created a sentence, with each picture relating to a part of speech, for example In the morning (time) the family (subject) ate (verb) breakfast (object). Students opened the pre-made Comic Life project and had to match words or phrases from a table to the pictures with the aim of creating correct simple sentences. As they worked, they had to learn a number of computer skills to use Comic Life effectively.

Working on the computer

Creating sentences and adding images.

After using my pre-prepared grids, the students were given more words and phrases to make into sentences which they then used to create their own Comic Life grids using pictures I had put into a shared folder. I modelled this process for students and they also had access to handouts and short video podcasts if they wanted more support.

More confident students began creating Comic Life grids about their weekends using the same process to build a sentence using single words and short phrases. These students were able to select their own images from Google Images for each chunk of the sentence.


World trip sectionFrom sentences to text structure

To support classroom teaching around the structure of a simple recount, students had to sequence full sentences from a recount about a school trip to Banks Peninsular. They then created a Comic Life grid using a full sentence for each picture.

After completing this exercise, students began creating their own simple recount based around an imaginary trip around the world. Students had a digital handout, which had an example of a Comic Life grid, a recount graphic organizer, a link to a YouTube video to show them how to click and drag images, and a link to several Flickr pages which had images of traveling around the world. Students found images related to their own country as part of this exercise which led to rich classroom discussions about the culture of each country.  Students also had to learn to work in multiple windows on the computer desktop.


First day at schoolCreating collaborative texts.

After completing a reading based on a student’s first day at school, students were put into groups of three with the aim of writing a simple recount about their shared experiences of starting school at Hagley. Students completed a rough draft using a graphic organizer, and then had to take photos using an iPod to tell their story. Students decided on various roles such as actors or the camera person.

The images were uploaded by the students to iPhoto on their computers. Students then used the images to tell their stories in Comic Life. They were able to choose their own layouts. The lesson focused on using the appropriate language features of a recount. The Comic Life recounts were then printed off and published on the classroom walls where students were able to comment on the structure, layout and features of the recounts.


Voicethread screenshotGiving voice to their recounts

The final step in the process was the use of VoiceThread, an online tool, to record the narrative of the first day at school recount and then share it with other members of the class. I created individual accounts for each of the students in the class. These accounts used their school e-mail accounts and one generic password, which gave me the ability to help students who were having trouble with this next step.

Students uploaded their Comic Life page and recorded their recounts one sentence at a time. This was a slow process as students were very conscious of getting their recordings correct. Only a handful were able to share their VoiceThread with other students as they ran out of time. However, some students were able to share their completed VoiceThread with relatives overseas which they found exciting. This is an example of a completed student VoiceThread.

Learning inquiry

Sentence and text structure

At the end of the unit, students completed the first of three writing assessments for their NCEA level 1 ESOL unit standard. The writing was based on their personal experiences of coming to New Zealand. Of the 20 students who sat the assessment, 18 passed, showing a significant gain across the class in the use of appropriate sentence structure for both simple and compound sentences. They were also able to transfer their understanding of text type to new situations.

Currently 5 out of 17 students have achieved ESOL US 17366 Write simple recounts of personal experiences. with a further 8 on track to completing the writing standard.

Student motivation

I was pleased that students would often be waiting on Monday and Tuesday mornings, at the computer room door, eager to continue with their Comic Life or VoiceThread. Building up sentences using words and phrases can be quite a ‘dry’ activity but a necessary one to help students understand sentence structure. By using visual and engaging tools like Comic Life and VoiceThread, students were motivated to complete the activities.


Student confidence in using computers

The students who had initially felt they needed help were generally happy to be using the computer by themselves by the end of the unit. They had discovered along the way that using computers involved more than just Facebook or downloading music and that they still had much to learn. I also saw an increased attendance at the lunchtime computer classroom sessions.


Student voice

During and after the unit of work I interviewed students about using Comic Life. These are some of their replies when asked how the program helped them.

“We get an advantage about how to use the computer. When I want to write the sentences I can use the pictures. It helps me to understand what the words mean, especially new words I did not know.”

“Comic Life makes it easy to write because I can go to the internet to find pictures to show me about the words.”

“I like using the computer because it is fun.”

Final reflection

Overall, I have found Comic Life a valuable resource in reinforcing the classroom learning of the students. It engaged the students right from the start. They were able to quickly learn skills, apply them and build upon them in the following lessons. The images helped the students who lacked an understanding of the vocabulary. They were able to link parts of a sentence to concrete examples which illustrated the role of each word or phrase. For example, a subject was usually a person and a verb was an action.

It was relevant to the students because they were using their own images by the end of the unit. Downloaded images would often become central to classroom discussions as students tried to explain something from their own culture.

It also made me realise that my previous assumptions about what the students could do on a computer were incorrect:

  • I needed to explicitly teach skills such as logging into an email account, opening network folders and searching for and uploading files.
  • What was pleasing was the transferability of skills they learnt in Comic Life to other programs and applications.
  • Once students could select, click and drag, open and save projects, they were able to do the same with many other programs.

I would definitely use Comic Life again and have used it with other classes for other reasons since. It could easily be used across a variety of text types. Although I only made a brief introduction to VoiceThread, I would like to explore using it more to get students to share and comment on work.

Link to the e-Learning Planning Framework

Teaching and learning

In this snapshot, Peter has selected technologies appropriately to help diverse students understand the content in learning areas.

FILED UNDER: Education, Imported