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Teaching Tips 86

The long tail
The youth of today....
Olive Oil Texts

The long tail
The long tail

This week, here are some lesson ideas around an article for the student who is interested in business ideas. Have a look at the article:

You needn't be top of the charts.
There's lots of gold if you dig deep

John Naughton, Sunday July 10, 2005, The Observer

Ever wondered why every bookstore you go into seems to have piles and piles of a few bestsellers, but not a single copy of anything by Henry James? Or why the video section has all the latest brain-dead Hollywood blockbusters, but not a single copy of Manon des Sources? Or why your local multiplex never shows a foreign language film?

The answer, of course, is simple: life is short, space is limited and rents are high. No bookshop or video store can stock everything. Multiplexes have to show movies that are likely to put bums on expensive seats. So, not surprisingly, everyone tries to stock or present things that are likely to sell (remember all those copies of Eats, Shoots and Leaves at Christmas? And as rents rise and competition increases, the pressure to stock only surefire 'hits' increases. It may not be a law of nature, but it's the iron law of retailing.

It's a law that has increasingly shaped our media industries and leads to investment, production and marketing strategies that are focused entirely on maximising the probability of hits.

It explains why some books are published and others are rejected, why some films get financed while others languish, why a few bands receive all the promotion while the majority have trouble getting a good designer to work on the album sleeve. It's the way things have to be.

Correction: it's the way things had to be, once upon a time. And that time has gone.

Here's an illustration. The average Borders bookshop in the US can hold, at most, 130,000 print titles. But earns less revenue from the 130,000 top titles in its catalogue than it does from the rest. In other words, Amazon has discovered that there's more money in 'misses' than there is in hits.

Welcome to the world of what statisticians call 'the long tail'.

This is the colloquial name given to a well-known feature of statistical distributions in which a vast number of events occur very rarely while a small number occur very often.

The huge population of rare events is referred to as the long tail. And it just so happens that in many cases the rare events are so much greater in number than the common events that in total they actually comprise the majority.

An oft-cited illustration is the frequency distribution of words in English. 'The' is the most commonly used word, and 'disestablishmentarianism' is used almost not at all (except by my kids when they were learning to spell), but most words in English are part of the long tail.

The marketing significance of this was first picked up by Chris Anderson in a Wired magazine article in October last year in which he explored the effects of the long tail on current and future business models. He observed that products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively add up to a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters, provided, that is, one critical condition is met: the store or distribution channel has to be large enough.

Enter Amazon. No physical store could ever stock everything in the long tail of every medium. But Amazon isn't a physical store – in essence it's a virtual one (though of course it does nowadays have some physical warehousing facilities of its own).

Amazon works by making it easy for consumers to locate long-tail items, knowing who stocks them and getting the items shipped to the customer. In the process, it essentially abolishes the iron law that governs retailing in 'meatspace' (aka the real world).

The strange thing is that there's nothing virtual about the goods that Amazon ships at present: they are physical objects like books, CDs and DVDs (not to mention cameras, electronic gadgets and all the other stuff you can now buy from the site). But imagine the economics of the long tail in 'pure' information goods - ie products that exist only as downloadable bitstreams.

The truth is that every movie ever made, every music track ever recorded, every book ever written - no matter how obscure - could be included in the long tail, made available online and distributed at almost zero cost.

The implications of this are profound, but all the evidence I've seen so far suggests that the media industries don't seem to have got the message. They're stuck, as Chris Anderson observes, in 'a hit-driven mindset'. They think that if something isn't a hit, it won't make money and so won't return the cost of its production. They assume, in other words, that only hits deserve to exist. If they don't wake up soon, they won't deserve to exist either.,12597,1526030,00.html

Here is a brief & straightforward procedure for using the article with upper intermediate/advanced levels - for lower levels you could orally summarise the article or provide a written summary:

1. Intro to the theme:
- Put the following questions on the board - pairwork >> feedback

  • When was the last time you bought a book?
  • What was the book called?
  • Where did you buy it?
  • Have you ever bought a book online?
  • Where?
  • What was it called?
  • Have you bought anything else online?

2. Reading:
Prediction – stds imagine a connection between the title & the previous discussion on books >> feedback – discuss
- Stds read the article quickly to verify their predictions >> compare in pairs >> feedback.
- Individually stds write questions to test their partner’s comprehension of the text >> swap questions & answer >> hand back questions, with answers, for correction by original question writer >> stds clarify any confusions >> general class feedback - elicit the main points from the article.

3. Language focus:
- vocabulary focus - stds work out different lexical sets that they can find in the text – have dictionaries on hand, if possible. Poss sets: books – business – internet

Otherstenses, passive voice, analysis of the text organisation.

4. Follow up:
Stds' response to the article:

  • sensible ideas in the article – dis/agree?
  • and the conclusion?
  • is it simply that people consider goods in the tail as 'not as good' as the things that sell?
  • companies aware of the ‘long tail’ in stds’ own countries
  • other products that this idea might apply to?

For a similar article with a clear example of how two books compared:

The long tail entry on Wikipedia:
A quote from the page:

A former Amazon employee described the Long Tail as follows: "We sold more books today that didn't sell at all yesterday than we sold today of all the books that did sell yesterday." In the same sense Wikipedia has many low popularity articles that, collectively, create a higher quantity of demand than a limited number of mainstream articles found on a professional site such as Britannica.

If your students are involved in business, see if they can provide any more business ideas/models..

Online shopping discussion: dangers, useful for buying which products – airline tickets....

- write an email to an internet company claiming for goods found to be damaged on arrival.
- write an email of complaint – paid but nothing received.
- write an email of congratulations for excellent service given.

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UN International Youth Day
The youth of today....

A couple of things this week:

International Youth Day

On 12th August it is International Youth Day, 'the most important day for youth at the United Nations'.

A few things to do with this:

Vocab: youth, young, youngster, youthful, young blood, adolescence, teenager, in her teens, school days, young adult, age of consent, come of age, delinquent, youth hostel, youth club.....

Discussions: a few topics from the UN page - Education, Employment, Hunger and poverty, Health, Environment, Drug abuse, Juvenile delinquency, Leisure-time activities, Girls and young women, Participation, Globalization, Information and Communication Technologies, HIV/AIDS, Youth and Conflict, and Intergenerational Relations.

Youth now & before – differences/similarities.

A few questions:

1. How is growing up as a teenager different now to what it was like 20 years ago?

2. Are there any different challenges now?

3. And in which ways is life easier?

4. And the future?

Problems >> possible solutions for youth in the area/country. (Volunteer work, sport etc..)

Roleplays: any kind of inter-generational conflict to bring out issues for a follow up discussion. Eg.

Parents: You are unhappy about the way your 19 year old son/daughter has been behaving. S/he has stopped working hard at school/university, stays out late, hangs round with the wrong crowd, gets up late & generally does very little. You suspect s/he has be taking drugs. It is time to talk to her/him.

Son: You are thinking about what you want to do with your life, what to study, career path etc. You don’t feel ready for any responsibilities & want to have some fun before it’s too late.

Older sibling: You are in the middle as you are sympathetic to your younger sister/brother but you can see your parents’ point of view.

Project work: For the teenage group eg. investigating different youth issues in home area or different parts of the world.

Songs: Song that highlights such as Peter Tosh's 'Can't Blame The Youth' as a springboard into the topic....


Advanced Conversation

I came across an article from the Guardian Online the other day that would make an excellent basis for advanced conversation for adults. Have a look at this problem:

1. The poppadom paradox

As life-transforming events go, the arrival of poppadoms at the table hardly counts as the most dramatic. But it gave Saskia the kind of mental jolt that would profoundly alter the way she thought. The problem was that the waiter who delivered the poppadoms was not of Indian descent, but a white Anglo-Saxon. This bothered Saskia, because for her, one of the pleasures of going out for a curry was the feeling that you were tasting a foreign culture.

But the more she thought about it, the less it made sense. Saskia thought of herself as a multiculturalist: she positively enjoyed the variety of cultures an ethnically diverse society sustains. But her enjoyment depended upon other people remaining ethnically distinct. She could only enjoy a life flitting between many different cultures if others remained firmly rooted in one. For her to be a multiculturalist, others needed to be monoculturalists. Where did that leave her ideal of a multicultural society?

This is from a new book by Julian Baggini, ‘The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 Other Thought Experiments’ (Granta). The Guardian article cites three more problems & each have a couple of responses from experts in that field.

Here’s another problem:

4. Sustainable development

The Green family realised that their success was exacting a high price. Their country farmhouse included their home and their business premises. But while their enterprise was creating a healthy profit, the vibrations caused by the heavy machinery used on site was destroying the fabric of the building. If they carried on as they were, in five years the building would be unsafe and they would be forced out. Nor were their profits sufficient to fund new premises or undertake the repairs and structural improvements required.

Mr and Mrs Green were determined to preserve their home for their children. And so they decided to slow production and thus the spread of the damage.

Ten years later, the Greens passed away and the children inherited the family estate. The farmhouse was falling to pieces. The builders said it would cost £1m to put right. The youngest of the Greens, who had been the accountant for the business for many years, grimaced and buried his head in his hands. "If we had carried on at full production and not worried about the building, we would have had enough money to put this right five years ago. Now, after 10 years of underperformance, we're broke."

His parents had tried to protect his inheritance. In fact, they had destroyed it.

Lots of interesting chat, some reading & speaking skills development plus associated language development for the advanced level. It might well be a little dry & sophisticated for some but it is different from the usual problem solving tasks found in coursebooks.
To view the article:,,1540041,00.html

To buy the book ‘The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 Other Thought Experiments’ (Granta):
To buy the book from

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Olive Oil Texts

Have a look at the following text I found the other day on the Guardian Online site:

Olive oil

With olive oil prices expected to soar as rainfall in Spain reaches a record low, Ayesha Christie traces the history of the original amber nectar

Tuesday July 26, 2005

1. The drought in Spain is predicted to reduce the olive harvest there by as much as 30%, prompting dealers of extra virgin oil to raise their prices. Spain is one of the world's largest producers of olive oil, supplying a third of the world's supply to more than 100 countries.

2. The olive tree has a revered place in Ancient Greek mythology - the goddess Athena was believed to have created the first tree during her battle with Poseidon, god of the sea, for the city of Attica. Up on the Acropolis, it was decided that the one who gave the city the finest gift should become its patron. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident to create a spring, and Athena planted an olive tree. While the water in Poseidon's spring was salty, and therefore of little value, Athena's olive tree provided the people with food, oil and wood. The city was renamed Athens.

3. Olive oils are graded and judged according to their level of acidity. Extra virgin olive oil is the product of cold pressing, a chemical-free process. This oil contains no more than 1% acid, and is considered the finest and fruitiest of all.

4. Some olive trees are known to live for thousands of years. The philosopher Plato founded his academy in an olive grove, and legend has it that an original tree from the grove was alive (though no longer producing olives) until the 1980s - making it more than 2,300 years old.

5. Olive oil was originally burned as the "eternal flame" of the Olympic torch, but over the years it was replaced by various substances that often proved to be inefficient and dangerous. After the 1956 Olympics, in which burning chunks of magnesium and aluminium scorched a runner in the final relay, the flame was replaced with much safer lightweight liquid fuels.

6. "He's strong to the finish 'cause he still eats his spinach, he's Popeye the sailor man," says the song. But Olive Oyl came on the scene way before Popeye: she was originally created in about 1919 by Elzie Segar for the comic strip Thimble Theatre (later renamed Popeye). Often portrayed as flirty and fickle, Olive differs from modern heroines, with her toothpick frame, dowdy clothes and unusually large feet, but she remains Popeye's one true love. Aw.

7. The health benefits of olive oil can be traced back to the creation. When Adam complained of being in pain, God is said to have sent down Gabriel with an olive tree, telling Adam to press the oil from the olives and drink it to cure any illness. Scientific research has since shown that he knew what he was talking about: olive oil is high in antioxidants and monounsaturated fats, which help to ward off cancer and heart disease.

8. There are over 700 different kinds of olives, ranging from the popular, dark purple kalamata olive to the pale green French picholine olive. The colour of the olive depends on its degree of ripeness: green olives, harvested early, have a high chlorophyll content, whereas olives harvested fully ripe at the end of the season are black.

9. Filippo Berio olive oil was voted "the one ingredient I can't live without" at this year's Good Housekeeping awards. Other winners included Jamie Oliver (most popular TV chef) and Delia Smith (the person who has influenced British cooking the most over the past 10 years).

10. Olive leaves have long been a symbol of peace, and are found on the UN emblem, which shows a map of the world encircled by a wreath of crossed olive branches. The US Great Seal also pictures an eagle carrying an olive branch. The 13 leaves in its right talon represent peace between the 13 original colonies of the nation.,,1536398,00.html

A fairly interesting text & I was wondering how to use it. It doesn't follow the same type of organisation that an article might, there is no unfurling story or argument or opportunity for interpretation of the writer's intent but a series of factual points. There is the procedure of present situation >> history >> types of olive oil >> other times olive oil is mentioned in different spheres. This could be a focus & the traditional extensive task >> more intensive task >> language focus procedure could be used but this is a good opportunity to deal with each section differently to provide a range of activity.

Introduction - the beginning could be used as a straightforward prediction to sink the students into the theme - they may know quite a bit about it already & be able to share this with the others:

Olive oil

With olive oil prices expected to soar as rainfall in Spain reaches a record low, Ayesha Christie traces the history of the original amber nectar

Tuesday July 26, 2005

Section 1 - translation. If you can, translate this part into their native language, assuming you are teaching a monolingual group, & they translate it back into English & compare with the original. Or simply translate it into their native language & then compare versions to see if anything interesting crops up.

Section 2 - dictogloss or high-speed dictation. Dictate this at normal speed a couple of times & the students take notes. Then they reformulate the text together in small groups. Tell them that the point is not to end with the same text as the original but to discuss options & get a coherent text together. Students then compare versions, discussing decisions that their groups made.

Section 3 - discourse focus - order. Give out the sentences in strips
& ask students to put them into a logical order.

a. This oil contains no more than 1% acid, and is considered the finest and fruitiest of all.
b. Extra virgin olive oil is the product of cold pressing, a chemical-free process.
c. Olive oils are graded and judged according to their level of acidity.

You could then go into the 'given-new' principle based on this section - we begin with the 'given' & move to the 'new'.

Section 4 - skeleton model. Students read the text & then decide on the skeleton & then write their own imaginative sections with this skeleton. They then read aloud & vote on the best. Here is the skeleton:

4. Some ___ are known to ___ for ___. The ___ founded his ___ in an ___, and legend has it that ___ from the ___ was ___ (___) until ___ - making it ___.

Section 5 - Textrunningtogether. Give out the text as one continuous stream & the students find the word boundaries& mark the punctuation.

OliveoilwasoriginallyburnedastheeternalflameoftheOlympictorchbutover theyearsitwasreplacedbyvarioussubstancesthatoftenprovedtobeinefficient anddangerousafterthe1956Olympicsinwhichburningchunksofmagnesium

Section 6 - reading aloud. The students analyse the section for how they might effectively read it aloud. They mark the tone units & the main stresses. Here is the section marked for tone units - a slash to signify the beginning & end of a tone unit. You might disagree & change a few of them.

/6.// "He's strong to the finish// 'cause he still eats is spinach,// he's Popeye the sailor man,"// says the song.// But Olive Oyl came on the scene// way before Popeye:// she was originally created in about 1919// by Elzie Segar// for the comic strip Thimble Theatre// (later renamed Popeye).// Often portrayed as flirty and fickle,// Olive differs from modern heroines,// with her toothpick frame,// dowdy clothes// and unusually large feet,// but she remains Popeye's one true love.// Aw./

The students practise individually & then take it in turns with a partner giving suggestions as to how to improve.

Section 7 - summarise. Students reduce the section to one sentence.

Section 8 - cloze. Students fill in the gaps made at every nth word, here every 5th word is taken out:

8. There are over 700 ____ kinds of olives, ranging ____ the popular, dark purple ____ olive to the pale ____ French picholine olive. ____ colour of the olive ____ on its degree of ____: green olives, harvested early, ____ a high chlorophyll content, ____ olives harvested fully ripe ____ the end of the ____ are black.

The third gap will be impossible but see what they come up with. Again the point is not the product but a discussion of the options.

Section 9 - expand. Students add information to the section, this time making it much longer. It doesn't matter if it is not factual, the important part is to play around with the grammar - & it can end up as lots of fun as students add bizarre information.

Section 10 - mutual dictation - jigsaw. Give out the two halves of the text to each pair & they cobble the text together by asking each other questions to fill their gaps. You might want to have a focus on question forms before starting. This could also be carried out between 3 or 4 students, each having bits of the text.

Student A
10. Olive leaves have long been a ______, and are found on the UN emblem, which shows a map of the ________ encircled by a wreath of crossed olive branches. The ________ also pictures an eagle carrying an ________. The 13 leaves in its ________ represent peace between the 13 original ________.

Student B
10. Olive leaves have long been a symbol of peace, and are found on the ______, which shows a map of the world encircled by a wreath of ________. The US Great Seal also pictures an ________ carrying an olive branch. The ________ leaves in its right talon represent ________ between the 13 original colonies of the nation.

If you have an overhead projector it would be efficient to use it with the relevant sections.

Follow up
- reactions to the information in the text - anything new, surprising...
- more on olive oil:
more on drought & the situation in the students' own countries, & how to reduce water consumption....
- fave recipes with olive oil >> into cooking in general..... some recipe sites:

It is usually a good idea to refelect native speaker tasks when using texts but for different aims & variety there are a wide range of interesting activities to choose from.

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