TESOL | What has been done?

Time to practice passive present perfect (or passive simple past if you’re feeling AE).

Divide the class into two groups. While one group waits outside, the other group looks around the room, trying to remember as many details as possible. After a minute or two, the groups switch places. The students who had been waiting outside enter the classroom and proceed to change 10 things. (To ensure that only 10 things are changed and to help keep track of what was changed, assign smaller groups of students to each change a specific number of things about the room.)

After the changes of been made, the waiting group comes back in and tries to figure out what has been done to the room, e.g. the board has been cleaned; a chair has been moved; a window has been opened/closed, etc.

I’ve had students write their guesses on the board before discussing each one.

TESOL | 5 by 5

This activity is meant to practice vocabulary and spelling. I prefer a simple version of the game, but it can easily be made more difficult.

I have noticed that students at every level have trouble remembering the names of letters in English despite the fact that (or because?) they learn the alphabet so early. As a little refresher, I find it helpful to practice the alphabet immediately prior to this activity, e.g. by saying it together as a class or having each student say one letter.


To set up the game, the teacher draws a 5 x 5 grid on the board or on a piece of paper. (If the teacher uses the the board, the students can follow along more easily.) Each student then draws their own grid on a piece of paper.


To begin the game, the teacher says one letter of the alphabet and writes it in one square (any square). Students write the same letter in any one square of their grids. Then, students take turns each saying one letter, which each student adds to their grid. The goal is to write words of two to five letters. To keep things simple, I prefer to count only words going left to right or top to bottom. Generally, I allow letters to be repeated any number of times, but limits can be set by the teacher to add a challenge.


Each word is worth a certain amount of points. 5-letter words are worth 10 points. Words with 4, 3 or 2 letters are worth the number of letters in that word. Points are tallied at the end to determine the winner. Don’t forget to explain the point system before beginning the game.


The activity can be done as a class or in smaller groups. It is up to the teacher to decide what kinds of words should count. I prefer not to include acronyms like CEO, but having such words count can be useful. Limits or bonuses can also be set for parts of speech or other word categories, e.g. only verbs will be counted or color words count double.



Language is, of course, more than vocab, grammar and pronunciation, but in Indonesia, I’ve been stumbling over one aspect of language that has rarely tripped me up before, namely tone.

Indonesian is not a tone language like Chinese, where individual words change meaning depending on their pitch, but it is tonal insofar as every language is a little bit tonal. In English, pitch might not influence the definition of a word, but it can change the intended meaning or feeling of a word or of an entire sentence. Take the word please. We use it firstly for polite requests and agreement, but we can use it to express doubt or annoyance as well.

“English is a tonal language? Oh, please!”

Sarcastic, critical, patronizing, skeptical, sympathetic, imploring, aggressive, etc. We can be all of those things just by changing our tone of voice. The please example illustrates what I mean by tone, but it is also idiomatic; it’s a usage of please that has to be learned separately. The difficulty I’ve had with tone in Indonesia is not idiomatic, but idiosyncratic.

The intention behind a particular tone is not universal across languages. What I might interpret as a critical or mocking slight to my intelligence, might not be meant that way at all. In fact, in Indonesia, I can be relatively sure it isn’t. To make things (subjectively) worse, however, questions I get asked are often, though not always, phrased negatively.

Don’t you know about the meeting? Why aren’t you drinking coffee? Don’t you want some snacks? You’re not going out today? Why aren’t you riding your bike?

By themselves, each of those questions is innocent enough, but I rarely hear just one. It’s hard for me not to feel annoyed, when I’m bombarded with negativity like that, particularly when I hear a list of expectations I have “failed” to meet. In reality though, commenting on changes and differences is a classic Indonesian method of troubleshooting, albeit a nosy one. Straying from the norm in Indonesia can be seen as the first indication of a problem, so when my ibu as good as freaks out because I don’t drink coffee one morning, she doesn’t intend to criticize my habits; she’s worried she bought me the wrong coffee. I still can’t completely ignore my first impressions of a tone of voice, but I’m getting better at reinterpreting tone or simply accepting it.

The incongruence between what I hear and what I understand is a product of my own cultural sensibilities. The fact that, in Java, an invitation to have some food is expressed the same way I might warn someone that their shoes are on fire is simply an aspect of Javanese culture I have to get used to.

TESOL | What was happening?

This activity is geared toward past progressive (continuous).

Two students come to the front of the class. One faces the class (Student A), while the other stands behind him/her and performs an action (Student B). Student A then asks three other students what Student B was doing. Two of the three are allowed to lie. One must tell the truth. Student A must guess which answer is correct.

Assign which students may lie and which may tell the truth by giving each a slip of paper with their role written on it.

For large classes:

After the whole class has seen the activity done once or twice, the teacher may divide the class into small groups. Students in each group will take turns performing each role.

To add a degree of difficulty, additional roles can be assigned. For example, Students B and C perform two different actions at the same time. Answers will follow the structure: Student B was Xing while Student C was Ying. Optionally, one student can only lie about Student B while the other can only lie about Student C.

All work and no play…

One of my favorite things about teaching foreign languages is trying out new activities with my students. I hesitate to call them games (even thought that’s often exactly what they are), because my Indonesian colleagues don’t always appreciate the merit of learning through playing. Luckily, the students are more receptive. Games are more than playing, more than winning and losing. They encourage students to use language actively, and though the situations might not be 100% authentic, the context can be realistic enough for concepts to sink in.

img_2359I will be starting a new series of blog posts profiling my favorite language activities (including games). In each post, I will include notes about classroom management, grammar and vocabulary, perhaps even a photo or two. All of these posts will be accessible under the TESOL menu. If you’re interested in a specific kind of activity or perhaps a grammatical concept, try the tag cloud.

If you’ve used an activity before, I’d be interested to hear how it worked for you. Feel free to comment with your own adaptations or other feedback.