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ESL Activities With Little Preparation

How often do you find yourself preparing a class, racking your brain for something different, a new activity to liven up a group of tired students, or just to bring something fresh to the classroom? If you are like most teachers, thinking of something new and exciting every day is not easy, and often we simply don't have the time (or energy!) So we revert to our tried and tested (and sometimes a little worn) ideas, or to following page after page of a textbook.

Well, it doesn't have to be that difficult. A lot of ideas can be adapted to many different language points, giving you something that can be used again and again. If the activity has a clear focus, motivation (students need to know why they are doing something - adding an element of competition to an activity is one way to achieve this) and, of course, clear instructions, then you're on to a winner.

There are many good resource books available with hundreds of quick and easy activities requiring little or no preparation. Have a hunt around your school's resources for books such as "Five Minute Activities" by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright, or "Keep Talking" by Friederike Kippel. Don't forget that your fellow teachers are good resources too - use them!

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

1. You may know "Backs to the Board", where a representative from each of two teams faces away from the board, while his/her teammates try to explain the word that you have written on the board to him/her, without saying the word or any variations of it. Well, why not extend this to whole sentences? The teams have a minute to explain the sentence to their teammate, without using any of the words, or spelling them, or using gestures. You can adapt this to any tense or structure that you want to practise.

2. Sentence reduction: Write a long sentence or a short paragraph on the board, rich in vocabulary. In teams, students take it in turns to erase either one, two or three consecutive words. The sentence must still make sense, gramatically, afterwards. If it doesn't, replace the words and move to the next team. Carry on until no further reduction is possible (your students will be amazed at how short the sentence can become, while retaining its grammatical sense!) The winning team is the one who removes the most words. (Variation: Do the opposite - start with one word and have students replace it with two or three, expanding the sentence.)

3. For spelling and vocabulary practice, try this: Start with one letter on the board, say "S". The first student then thinks of a word beginning with "S" and adds the next letter, for example "ST". The next student then thinks of a word starting with "ST" and adds another letter, and so on. If someone in the group thinks there is no such word, he can challenge the writer to name his/her word. If there is no such word, the writer is out, but if he/she was thinking of a real word, then the challenger is out. The winner is the last student remaining.

4. If your students are imaginative, give each group four or five pictures cut out from magazines, and get them to create a picture story - you can keep the context very open, or have them focus on a particular tense or function. If you want to focus on oral communication, don't let them write their story down! If you also want to evaluate their writing, have them write it down as they go along. When they've finished, have each group tell their story to the rest of the class.

5. As a "Getting to know you" exercise, ask students to write three things which are true about themselves, and two which are not true (but believable). Students take turns to read their sentences to the rest of the group, who must discuss, and ask questions to the reader, and try to find out which of his/her sentences are true. A good ice-breaker is to do this yourself first so that they get the idea - write the five things about you on the board. (Variation: Write five one-word facts about yourself on the board, for example "32", "Liverpool", "Three", "Bloggs", and have students, in pairs, try to guess the questions which will give them these answers.)

6. Another one for imaginative students: Dictate the first line of a different story to each of several groups. They have a few minutes to continue the story, and then pass their piece of paper to the next group, who read the story so far and add the next part. Carry on until the stories reach their original groups, who then conclude and read out the stories. To focus on a particular language point or item of vocabulary, you can do this orally as a chain story: Give the first sentence, then have the first student continue the story. They must at some point use the tense, or structure, or word (allocated beforehand), that you want to work on. Carry on until all the students have contributed.

7. For some energetic writing practice, divide the board into three columns, and give each column a header with three structures that you want to practise (for example "first, second, third conditional", "yes/no questions, indirect questions, tag questions", "present perfect simple, present perfect continuous, past simple"). Split students into pairs. One from each pair is the writer, the other is the runner. Give each pair many small slips of paper and some blu-tac, and tell them that they must construct as many gramatically correct sentences as they can, in each of the three categories, and stick them on the board (with their initials to identify them). Set a five or ten minute time limit. The writer writes a sentence, then the runner takes the slip of paper and sticks it on the board. Shout "CHANGE" every so often for them to swap roles. At the end, have all the pairs look at the sentences and evaluate them. If they find an incorrect one, they tell you, and that sentence is not counted towards that pair's score. (Variation: You can make this activity more difficult by saying that each sentence must contain a minimum of 10 words, for example.)

8. Another favourite is to give each student a secret famous identity, which they stick to their back or forehead. They go around the class, asking yes/no questions to establish their identity. You could make sure they practise the past simple by making all the famous people dead ("Did I live in the USA?"), or present perfect, by making them alive (Have I acted in many films?), or future, by imagining that these famous people have not yet been born (Will I be an actor?).

9. Stand students up, and shout out two opposing ideas, or people, or concepts, or adjectives, or places. For exanple, "beach or mountains", "Spielberg or Hitchcock", "red or blue", "Playstation or Nintendo" depending on the age/interests of your students. Point to one side of the room for one idea, the other side for the other. Students move to the side of the room they choose - pick a few students each time to explain the reasons for their choices. If you like, you can let it develop into a debate between the two groups.

10. Do a "grammar auction" or "gap fill auction" with mistakes that students have made (and that you've made a note of) or with a language area that you want to work on. Split students into teams, and allocate each team $100, or 10,000 yen or any amount you like. If you can photcopy some real money, so much the better. For the grammar auction, give each team a worksheet with 10 (or more) sentences (based on the mistakes they've made or the language area you're working on). Some should be grammatically correct, others incorrect. Give teams some time to discuss whether they think the sentences are correct or not, and then have them gamble on that decision for each sentence. Then give them the answer - if their decision was right, they double the amount they gambled - if not, they lose their stake. For the gap fill, give them 10 or more gap fill sentences (again based on the area you're practising or their mistakes) and this time they choose the correct word to go in the gap and gamble on it.

You can find variations on these activities, and many, many others in the books mentioned at the beginning of this article, among others. Try one of them today for something different in your ESL classes!

Submitted by:

Keith Taylor

Keith Taylor is the founder of eslbase, http://www.eslbase.com/, with TEFL jobs and TEFL courses worldwide, as well as information, advice and resources for teachers. He also runs the eslbase language exchange, http://www.eslbase.com/language-exchange/, an easy way to practise any language online.


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