The sentence auction is one of my all-time favorite activities for intermediate to advanced students. However, slimmed down to basic examples, this activity can also be used with beginners.*
It serves several purposes: firstly, it trains students’ language instincts, helping them recognize and/or correct mistakes, but it also lets them practice managing money and risk. The auction definitely requires a bit of preparation, but the students can help.
First, you need sentences: some right, some wrong. I recommend two ways of getting them. Personally, I like to have the students write the sentences used for this activity, usually during the session before game day. From experience, I know there will be some recurring errors in the mix. Otherwise, the teacher can come up with each sentence for more targeted, intentional practice.
Student-created sentences: If I asked my students to, “Write me five sentences,” I would get blank stares. Give your students a prompt, somewhere to begin.
Grammar: Get your students to write sentences using a particular tense: present, past, future, etc., but rather than asking them to use the tense, give them a time frame—every day, last month, next year, etc. Then, remind them which tense they’ll want to use in that time frame. Ask them to include a question or write all questions if that’s the topic du jour.
Vocabulary: Give your students a vocab prompt. Use the words you’re currently working on. Of course, you can also use the opportunity to review. For example, ask for five nouns, five adjectives and five verbs. Tell them to write sentences using at least one of the words per sentence or at least one of each part of speech per sentence, etc.
Once you have your sentences, take some time to actually read them; survey the errors and decide how many and which sentences you want to use.
Teacher-created sentences: Decide how many sentences you want to auction off and what typical errors you want to tempt the students with. This means a little more work for you, the teacher, but this way you have more control over what the students are practicing.
Divide the class into teams. It’s up to you to find the right balance for your class. If the teams are too big, individual students might not have a chance to participate, but if there are too many teams, the activity can become difficult to manage. I find it helpful to recruit one student as a score keeper and helper. Though not necessarily concentrating on the sentences, this student will still be very much involved. He or she must keep track of which team bought which sentence for how much money—in English. This could potentially be a student whose math skills outshine his or her language skills or a student who might otherwise be disruptive.
Ask the students if they are familiar with an auction. They might not know the English word, but a brief demonstration will hopefully help them connect the dots. If you think your students are completely unfamiliar with the concept, it might be a good idea to explain it during the session before game day, perhaps with a video.
Tell the students you’ll be auctioning off (their) sentences. Some will be correct; others will have errors. Clue them in on how many of each type of sentence are for sale.
Give each team a budget. Make it enough money so the teams won’t run out too quickly, but don’t give them too much; make the students practice taking calculated risks.
Set the rules on how often you’ll repeat each sentence. This will encourage students to be quiet while you read the sentences and help spare your vocal chords. If students are writing the sentences down, you may also want to set a time limit on how long before you close bidding.
Checking answers: It’s possible to check each sentence after it’s sold, distributing points right away, but this interrupts the flow of the activity and takes away from the suspense. I find it more enjoyable to go through all of the sentences at the end.
If you have the resources, you may want to give your students a worksheet with the sentences you auctioned off and have them follow along as the appropriate corrections are made. Otherwise, if you have time, have the students write down each sentence as you go through the corrections.
Scoring: There are different ways you can keep track of the score.
Points: Most simply, give points for correct sentences and take points away for incorrect sentences. Add some nuance and a challenge to the game by giving extra points for successfully corrected errors. That way, students will bid for more sentences and give each a second thought.
Money: Alternatively, use money to keep score. Tell students the balance of their budget will disappear after bidding has ended, but they will get some or all of their spent money back for correct and/or corrected sentences. This will encourage students to make higher bids and take risks.
I’ve used this activity a number of times, with varying degrees of success, but each time, the students have gotten very animated. If you want to try it out, I encourage you put a lot of thought into your preparation. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll know what works and what doesn’t. Then you can tweak it to perfection. Going once; going twice; three times! And sold to you!
*For beginners: Consider auctioning off single words or phrases. You probably won’t want to confuse your students by giving them incorrect forms. Instead, auction off base forms and ask for variations: irregular plural nouns, irregular verbs, comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, etc.