Talking Magic: Using Discussion and Writing to Learn Grammar

A common theme in a lot of my classes is that many of my students absolutely adore magic tricks. They like to try guessing how it is that someone can possibly insert pencils into balloons without popping them, and they enjoy telling me about the magic tricks that they’ve learned in the past. I’ve even had people show me their magic tricks, which has opened up some really fun possibilities in class to talk about them.

Because there is so much happening in a single magic trick, there are so many language skills that can be practiced at the same time. Not only are they entertaining for most people, but they provide space for students to think about, learn, and use grammar in a more indirect and natural fashion. Rather than simply doing rote exercises where they memorise when to use prepositions like ‘from’ and ‘with’ or the specific contexts of different verb tenses, they are tasked with trying to clearly explain what is happening in the tricks they’re watching or performing.

One of my favourite tasks has been to use magic tricks as both a discussion and a writing exercise. I’ll usually show videos of different magic tricks that have explanations, like those posted on Magic Secrets Revealed. These are great because you can watch the trick be performed normally for the first half and then observe how it was done in the second.

For the first half of the video, I ask my students to write a short paragraph that explains how they think the trick was done. Once they’ve completed that, I ask them to share their explanations with everyone else. In doing this, students have the opportunity to think deeply about how the trick was done and to debate with their peers about what they saw. This always leads to interesting discussions, and those discussions always lead to people learning how to better communicate what they see through a more natural use of grammar as I or their peers ask them to clarify when we don’t understand.

The second half is to watch the explanation and write a quick list highlighting what they got right and what they got wrong. Sometimes I even ask them to explain why they got something wrong, telling me what they initially saw and how it confused them. This serves multiple purposes. First, it encourages them to critically and actively engage with the media that they’re watching by considering what initially confused them and how. This prompting to engage with concepts in media literacy is something that everyone needs, especially as we’re constantly told that seeing is believing.

Second, it utilises a range of linguistic skills to adequately explain everything, which provides a space for people to indirectly learn those more complex grammar points. Though students may still make mistakes (which is fine, since we learn from them), the ability to compare their original answer to what actually happened and discuss how they were led to think by the magician pushes them to think about how to phrase things so everyone around them understands. Statements that compare two thoughts can be really challenging, but the topic at hand often puts everyone at ease to just try.

But overwhelmingly, it also provides students with confidence in being able to see the tricks, especially when they get things right and are able to point to their ability to recognise what’s happening. And that boost in confidence always improves everything else.