TESOL | Creating activities, now…

One of my weekly activities is my school’s English Club. It existed before I came, and it’s quite popular among students, so getting and keeping people interested has been easy. Generally, between 40 and 50 participants show up every week. Planning activities for English Club, however, has been difficult. Start and end times will change or a session will be canceled last minute; even when everyone knows what time we’ll be starting, that’s not when everyone will show up. Students usually trickle in the whole time. Of course flexibility is also something that should be built into lessons; if your big-group activity can’t be done with a small group (or vice versa), have a plan B.

At last Friday’s English Club, my counterpart reviewed present and past continuous with the students and had them write sentences. Useful, but not super stimulating. Then, with about 30 minutes left, she handed the session over to me. I’ve been shaking activities out of my sleeves for a long time, so I don’t panic when I’m put on the spot. I don’t love it, but I can deal with it. Writing today, I thought I’d do a little stream-of-consciousness post. How do I make up a game or activity on the spot? What goes through my head?

Just a few things to remember: What I’m posting obviously isn’t a finished product; I’ll definitely tweak some things if I do the activity again. Feel free to let me know what you’d change or add! Also, what I’m writing here is a stylized version of what happened in the classroom; some is more, some is less accurate. The way I actually explain things to my students would make for even more boring reading.

Okay. How many students do I have? 42.

That’s divisible by seven. Six groups of seven or seven groups of six? We’ll do more groups.

How can I keep them busy while I figure out what we’re doing? We just did present and past continuous.

“All right everyone! I want each group to write a list of 10 verbs. Use the -ing form.”

But wait: they’re all going write the same verbs. How can I prevent that? Alphabetically. We’ll do it alphabetically. Group 1 will do ABC. Just have to make sure Group 7 doesn’t end up with XYZ. I’ll write the groups and their letters on the board.

“Listen up! Each group will write only verbs that begin with their letters. And please include the Indonesian translation on your lists!”

Okay, now what can we do with these verbs? Charades? I need as many active students as possible though.

“Everybody finished? If you only have 7 verbs, that’s okay. Now each student gets one verb. That’s your verb. One student, one verb. Group 1, everybody come to the front. The other groups, please send only one student from your group to the front. That’s Groups 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, please send one student each.”

Is this going to work? We’ll find out in a minute!

“Group 1, you will all perform your actions at the same time. Students from the other groups, watch Group 1. You’re going to guess their actions. When you see an action and you think you know what it is, grab that actor. If two or more people grab the same actor, that actor belongs to the fastest guesser. I will be keeping track of time. When I say ‘Time’s up!’, I will ask each guesser to tell me what they think the actor was doing. If you correctly guess the action of the actor you claimed, your team gets a point. Give me your answers in a complete sentence. What was she doing? She was jumping.”

It actually worked!

“Okay, everyone! Good job!”

If I do the activity again, I’ll be specific about the time limit. I never told the actors how long they had to perform, but I kept it pretty consistent at around half a minute. I might also give points to the actors whose actions are guessed correctly. That way they have an incentive to perform well.

Sometimes I worry too much about doing new things with my students. I might be tired of an activity because I’ve done it multiple times with 30 different classes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the students are bored of it yet. They’ve only done said activity once or twice. Still, I like trying new things. Ideally, I plan new activities in advance, but as you can see, it’s okay to fly by the seat of your pants sometimes (and it’s a skill that can be honed!). Happy planning!


Fortune tellers

My students are creative, but they’re not accustomed to showing it in class. That means I’m always looking for ways to get them to put a little more of themselves into their work. Last week we made paper fortune tellers, which were a hit. Everyone wanted their fortunes to get the best reactions, so they tried to make them good.


Most students did not know how to make a fortune teller, so the first part of the lesson involved listening to and following instructions in English. I won’t include the folding instructions here, but they’re easy to find elsewhere. There are different ways to label a fortune teller, but we used colors and numbers: colors on the four outer surfaces and numbers on the eight inner surfaces. Part of the fortune telling involved spelling the colors and counting up to each number.

For the fortunes, I told the students to write sentences using the future tense with ‘will’. For example, You will pass all of your exams. These went underneath each of the eight numbered surfaces. When everyone was finished making their fortune tellers, I asked them to go around the room telling fortunes and having their fortunes told. They were to write down the fortunes they received. At the end of class, I asked everyone what their best and worst predictions were.

In place of future, fortune tellers could also be used to practice imperatives or even vocab and spelling.

Each step takes time, but with clear directions and demonstrations, students quickly grasp the idea.

How do I get to…?

The other day (or week) my counterpart taught a lesson on making reservations, be it for the movies, dinner or travel. As a follow-up, I pulled out some Australian bus schedules and travel brochures to practice asking for travel information.


I set up bus and train stations around the room and assigned pairs of students to each. I gave them a schedule for a particular line or set of lines and told them to help the travelers that would be stopping by their stations to ask for information.

The rest of the students also worked together in pairs, and I gave each a starting point, a destination and a time by which they needed to be there. The times I gave them didn’t usually match perfectly with the schedule, so I told them, when in doubt, arrive early. For example, though a bus might get in at 11:01 am, if their assigned arrival time is 11:00 am, they have to take the earlier bus, even if it gets in at 10:30 am. Quite a foreign concept for my students.

Assuming some students would be done earlier than others, I set up a reading table with brochures and pamphlets about Western Australia. I told everyone who got done early to browse the material and write down a sentence or two about whatever looked interesting to them.

The process and the materials both being quite new, it took a little while for everyone to get the hang of the activity, but once they did, they actively participated and all made it to their destinations.

20 Questions

This classic game is a great way to practice questions. Is it … ? Does it … ? Can it … ? Can you … it? It requires the full width and breadth of the students’ vocabularies, and it also requires a certain way of thinking, which doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

img_3810I recently played with my students, none of whom had ever played before. I explained the rules and gave them a few example lines of questioning. Then, when I let them start asking questions themselves, they immediately starting guessing: Is it a computer? Is it a pineapple? I called a time out and explained the premise again: start big and get more specific from there. Before you ask if it’s a pineapple, ask if it’s a fruit, or better yet, ask if it’s food. We played a few rounds together. Some students grasped it very quickly, others less quickly, but it was great practice for everyone. After the class got the hang of it, I divided them into small groups and let them play again. I also made them keep track of their lines of questioning, so they could visualize them, and so we could discuss them later.

There are different variations of this game out there, but I kept it basic. One player thinks of a word; the other players have to guess what it is by asking up to 20 yes/no questions. In each of my classes, I provided the students with the question structures that I wanted them to use. That’s it!

TESOL | Sentence Auction

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.

Game day

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.

PointsMost 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.

MoneyAlternatively, 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 nounsirregular verbscomparative and superlative forms of adjectives, etc.

TESOL | Another 5 things

Just a little update on the activity 5 things. The first few weeks of school I’ve used it to elicit vocabulary for subsequent teaching topics. When students were required to talk about their lives and introduce their friends and family, I had them come up with five words for family members.

In another class, the students were supposed to make suggestions, so I had them come up with five activities they’d like to do with their friends. They still acted like they didn’t have any ideas for their suggestions, but their excuses were weakened by the fact that I made each of them come up with five, not to mention the list I had collected on the board. Not knowing what to write is something my students often claim, but more often than not, I’ve given them the tools they need.

TESOL | 🎲 Roll and Tell

Since the new school year began this week, I thought I’d post an ice breaker for new groups, large and small.

First, students write down 6 facts about themselves. If they know enough English already, they can choose what they’d like to share. Alternatively, the teacher can give them questions to answer or sentences to complete. With my high school students, I like to include a sentence that I always hope proves enlightening: I think English is [easy / hard].

Dice are a great classroom tool!

The reason for 6 is that students will roll a die to determine how many facts they must share with the class. The teacher can demonstrate the process, once students have finished writing.

The chance factor adds a little excitement to the activity, and if students roll a 6, it’s not the teacher’s fault! This may put some shy students at ease. On the other hand, if an especially confident student wants to share all of their facts, a low number shouldn’t stop them.

See what your students come up with when they roll and tell.

TESOL | Numbers

I find that numbers are always something worth reviewing and practicing, and they can be practiced alongside many other topics. This post will include several very different activities.


Javanese numerals

Meaningful Numbers

This activity can be used as an icebreaker, but it also works with groups that are already well acquainted. Students choose three numbers that are significant to them (e.g. age, height, birthdate, number of siblings, number of pets, etc.). In small groups, they take turns trying to guess the meaning behind each number by asking, “Is it your height? Is it how many siblings you have?” etc. Once the groups are finished guessing, the teacher can ask for volunteers to challenge the whole class with their meaningful numbers.

My students get very creative, both with their questions and their answers. They also get a little sassy, making guesses that are obviously wrong, but usually very funny. This activity is about a lot more than numbers, because the students are thinking about all kinds of vocabulary the whole time.

Counting Together

This exercise does practice numbers, but it’s probably more useful as a gauge of the group dynamic. Students try to count to a certain number (or as high as they can), which may sound easy enough, but believe me, it’s not.

Everyone stands in a circle and either closes their eyes or looks at the floor. One person begins the counting with ‘one’. The tricky part is that any student can continue, but no two students may say the same number at the same time. Numbers can be called out in quick succession or with long pauses in between, but only one student may say a given number. The first time I did this activity was with 42 students (and 2 teachers), and we got as high as 16.

Perhaps not the best activity if you want to practice higher numbers, but you can alternatively have the students count in intervals, i.e. by fives, tens, etc.

Classroom Inventory

If the topic du jour is classroom vocabulary or school supplies, why not throw in some numbers as well? Have students take an inventory of objects in the classroom. They can work together in small groups or individually. Have them compare their results at the end, the perfect time to practice ‘there is / are‘. If it’s feasible, the teacher can assign different groups to different parts of the school, e.g. the library, front office or cafeteria. If you’re short on time, limit the number of objects to be inventoried; perhaps let each group choose a certain number of items from a list. If you have time to kill, let the students go wild.


Lastly, make your students do math! Whether young, old or somewhere in between, everyone can benefit from a little extra math practice, be it basic arithmetic or everyday problems using basic measurements, prices or time. For large numbers, look at populations, area measurements or numbers of language speakers. Compare different countries to one another to practice geography while you’re at it.

As always, have fun and let me know how it goes!

TESOL | Five Things

This is one of my favorite warm-up activities. It’s quick, easy, versatile and usually elicits a wide variety of results. It’s good for reviewing old vocabulary as well as setting the stage for new material. Asking for ‘five things’ can also help determine what the students already know about a given topic.

The Concept:

The teacher writes a category on the board. The students must write down five words that fit the category. For example:

Five things that are GREEN

– grass
– leaf
– bamboo
– apple
– pear

Adjectives are a great conceptual link (cold / round / sweet), but verbs are just as good.

Five things that can FLY

– bird
– airplane
– helicopter
– bee
– dragonfly

If you’re about to review one of the ‘perfects’, warm up with five irregular past participles* (eaten / gone / made / seen / written). Ideally, you’ll get a lot of responses, which you can use in your lesson.

Categories can be virtually anything: plants, animals, places, even words that start with the same letter, if you’re focusing on spelling or pronunciation. They can also be individual: five things you cannot do / may not do.

When it comes to some words, I set limits. Yes, notebooks can be green, but are they typically green? Is coffee always sweet? (Actually, in East Java, it usually is; I might let that one slide, at least while I’m here.)

There is so much to choose from and play with. Try to keep track of the categories you give your students, especially if you use this activity on a regular basis. That way, your examples will stay fresh.

Give it a try!

*In Germany, my students called past participles the ‘third form’ and in Indonesia, they say ‘verb 3’. EFL dictionaries often include a table of irregular verbs, the third column of which lists past participles, e.g. go / went / gone.

TESOL | I’m a marker looking for some ink

Some activities are so versatile that they demand to be adjusted and tweaked again and again. This is one of those. I’m going to describe the simplest version first, before I add a few possible adaptations.

Regardless of the variation, the teacher needs to prepare one slip of paper for each student. For a simple vocab activity, the teacher writes two words on each slip:

a teacher > a marker

a marker > ink

ink > a bottle

a bottle > a shelf

The words can be related or unrelated. The first word indicates what the student is during the activity and the second indicates what they are looking for. The slips of paper can also include the phrases the student will need:

I’m a teacher. Are you a marker?

Otherwise those phrases can be written on the board and explained to the class as a whole. You can practice any number of phrases, but you’ll want to be consistent.

am a marker. Are you ink? Who is ink?

I have a marker. Do you have ink? Who has ink?

Once a student has found what they were looking for, they should ask what the next student is looking for and follow suit, keeping track of the chain in a list.

teacher, marker, ink, bottle, shelf

The first person to complete the list is the winner.

Instead of finding single vocab words, the task could be to complete a story.

to the store. > They didn’t

They didn’t > have what

have what > she was

The first person to find the complete the story (and correctly identify the beginning and the end!) is the winner.

A story could be replaced with instructions or any other sort of written text.

Large classes could be split up to save time or make the activity more manageable. Students could complete the task in pairs, taking turns to ask for and give information. Another option would be to split the class into two larger groups, each with a separate puzzle. For example, students in one group could gather the ingredients of a recipe, while the others compile the instructions.


Simplify preparation for this activity by compiling a list with enough words, or finding a text that can be broken into enough pieces, before you make the cards. Remember that the first word or phrase will also be the last.

Keep in mind:

This activity gives everyone something to do. It requires individual as well as group work. However, I was forced to remind my students several times that their task was not to copy their friends’ work, but rather to complete the task (the list, story, etc.) on their own, the only help from their friends being the next clue.

Give it a try, and let me know how it works for you!