Hana Tichá: Speaking? Yes, please! Low-tech and low-prep activities which will get your teenage students speaking.
ETAS Journal Volume 35, Number 3 (Summer 2018), pp. 34-35
Two questions that often get asked in staff-rooms when English teachers meet: How can I get my students to learn? And how can I get my students to speak? In many ways, the second question’s answer will go a long way to answering the first. Hana’s article provides five activities (low prep!) that will help the teenage student – who may be reticent in their mother tongue – to be confident with their own voice.
It is equally important for the teacher to have activities up their sleeves that provide intensive practice but need little preparation time. Sometimes it is vital for the teacher to have some free time, too! Give these ideas a try and tweak them to fit your teaching context.
Speaking? Yes, please! Low-tech and low-prep activities which will get your teenage students speaking
In language teaching and pedagogy in general, we tend to talk about three distinct types of learners – young learner, teenage learner, and adult learner. For some reason, teaching teenage classes is usually seen as the most challenging of the three, and this belief is common to both lay people and practitioners in the field of education.
I’ve been an English teacher for more than 20 years, and I’ve taught all the above-mentioned types of learners – in the state as well as the private sector of education in the Czech Republic. Based on my experience, the problem with teenage classes is that it’s hard to win their enthusiasm, and the toughest part is to get them speaking. I’d like to stress that although there is a curriculum and a coursebook I have to follow, I’m very lucky to have freedom in my classes to be creative with activities. In this article, I’d like to share five of my favourite low-prep activities which have always proved useful in my teaching context, especially when it comes to teaching teenagers.
What’s the word (Swap and Mingle)
Give each student two blank cards. On one card they write 12 words (the choice of words depends on your class’s needs). The second card is for the students to record the points they get throughout the game. The students sit in two concentric circles/semi-circles/horseshoes or just two students facing each other.
They then take turns to define the words on their cards. At some point, give a signal to stop and ask the pairs to swap their cards with words and then the inner circle students move one chair to the left/right. Thus, each student ends up with a different card and a different partner. For each word the partner guesses, the other student gets a point and records it on the other card.
Reflection: This is a lively yet very structured activity, which, I believe, is one of the reasons why my teenage students always respond to it so well. The fact that each vocabulary set is used twice by the same student makes things easier, especially for weaker students. Furthermore, everybody is engaged all the time and the two students working together are opponents as well as allies, which encourages competition and cooperation. Note: If you happen to have an odd number of students, two students in the outer circle (those who don’t move) can work as a team with one vocabulary set.
Name, place, animal, thing game (with a creative tweak)
Put students in groups of three or four. Hand out a blank A4 piece of paper to each student. Ask them to draw a grid with five columns. In each column, they put one category, i.e. a lexical field such as animals, sport, history, etc. In each group, one student picks a letter and all the members of the group have to come up with one word for each category starting with that letter.
The tweak: any answer should be accepted by the other group members provided the student speaking can justify it. Example: Letter D > doctor in the animal category (“There are doctors who treat animals. These doctors are called vets”.) For each unique answer = 10 points; if two or more students have the same answer = 5 points. No answer (or answer dismissed by the others) = 0 points. The number of points is recorded in a special column.
Reflection: This activity promotes collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and tolerance. It’s very successful in my teaching context and one of my classes once called it The best game ever!
Note: It may not go so well in classes where students don’t get on well with one another.
This or That? Why?
Ask your students to help you generate a list of pairs. They can be opposites such as day/night, black/white, or just similar items, i.e. Smartphone/tablet. Ideally, they should always be nouns or gerunds. Prompt students with categories, such as sports, food, colours, electronic gadgets, school subjects, seasons, etc. Record the students’ ideas on a sheet of paper. When you end up with a list of about 20 pairs, ask students to take a piece of paper and a pen. Tell them that you are going to read the pairs one by one and that they quickly have to decide which item they prefer, i.e. day or night? fishing or golf? English or maths? Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings? movies or books? They always have to choose and record one option. If they aren’t sure, they still have to make a quick decision. Based on my experience, at this point, even the most demotivated and lazy students will liven up. So, each student will eventually end up with a slightly different list of words.
The speaking part: Now, put students into pairs/groups and ask them to glance at their lists first to see if they are ‘on the same wavelength’, i.e. if they have the same preferences. Then, get them to discuss their answers one by one.
Reflection: The great thing about this activity is that even when picking one alternative, the students have to think about (or dismiss) the other one. Thus, more language is generated. The teacher, on the other hand, will have an opportunity to deal with some emergent grammar. For example, the last time we tried this activity, my students came up with some interesting ideas and lots of useful language points that we then worked on as a class, such as I prefer night because everything’s quieter and more peaceful (comparatives). I prefer black to (preposition) white because it goes with every clothing item (countable vs uncountable nouns).
Taboo vocabulary game
You can get a real version of the game in Czech, but since it is too culture-related,
I find it quite challenging. This, and the fact that I needed a more tailor-made set of cards made me believe that there’s no point in trying to get the original version in English, which would probably be costly anyway, and I decided to go the DIY way. I soon realized, though, it’s pretty time-consuming to create a sufficient number of cards for one group so I asked my students to help me out. Needless to say, it was a good move.
The words in italics are examples of what I call ‘main’ words and they represent the material to be revised through this activity. They are the words students actually describe. The other four words below, to the contrary, are items that must be avoided during the description stage – the ‘taboo words’. You can have as many taboo words as you wish, but I’d suggest three to five.
The process of creating the cards usually takes about 25 minutes. It works best when each pair is assigned a specific section from the word list at the back of their workbooks, for example (to avoid duplicates within the group and to make sure that we’ll have covered as many words as possible). Each pair creates 10 cards.
In my teaching context, I usually have about 16 students in a group so the eight pairs are able to create up to 80 cards altogether. When we are done, I put students into groups of four. I shuffle the cards and hand out 20 random cards to each group. The cards are placed face down on the desk. The students take turns in their groups as follows:
S1 describes the main word while S2 keeps an eye on her/him, i.e. S2 can see the
card too but only has to watch out. If S1 accidentally uses one of the taboo words (or the stem/part of the main word), S2 grabs the card. If not, S3 and S4 try to guess the word and the faster one gets the card. If you happen to end up with a group of 3, there’s simply no ‘guard’ in it – S1 describes the word and the other students try to guess. The winner is the student with most cards.
Reflection: The process of selecting the main words from the given vocabulary list is a very valuable revision activity itself. Also, when inventing the taboo words, students are actually forced to imagine how *they* would best describe the main word. I always advise them to assume that their future opponents will probably come up with similar descriptions in their heads so putting good taboo words on the card will make the game more challenging.
Battleship is a guessing game for two players. It’s played on ruled grids (paper or board) on which the players’ fleets of ships (including battleships) are marked. The locations of the fleet are concealed from the other player. Players alternate turns taking ‘shots’ at the other player’s fleet. The objective of the game is to destroy the opposing player’s fleet. Give each student a Battleship grid (see the original article for an example).
Before the play begins, each player secretly arranges their ‘ships’ on the grid. Each ship occupies a number of consecutive squares on the grid, arranged either horizontally or vertically. The number of squares for each ship is determined by the type of the ship (see example). The ships cannot overlap. The types and numbers of ships allowed are the same for each player. I usually ask students to arrange two ships made of two squares, a ship made of three squares, and a ship made of four squares. After the ships have been positioned, the game proceeds in a series of rounds. In each round, each player takes a turn to explain a word he or she thinks occupies a square belonging to one of the ships on his/her opponent’s grid.
• Student A: It’s a means of transport.
You need to buy a ticket when you want to use it. It’s long.
• Student B: Train?
• Student A: Yes, that’s what I meant.
• Student B: Sorry. MISS!
• Student B’s turn now: It’s kind of fish. You usually buy it in tins. It’s quite expensive.
• Student A: Tuna?
• Student B: Yes, that’s what I meant. • Student A: Well done! HIT!
When the whole ship is destroyed, the student must let the opponent know.
Reflection: Based on my experience, this activity is suitable for all age groups. However, teenagers appreciate it the most. This, I believe, is mainly due to its game-like element and the fact that this game is very popular in its original form here in the Czech Republic. Most of my students are already familiar with the rules, which obviously makes things easier and saves a lot of time during the demonstration stage.
One of the rewards of teaching a class of talented, motivated teenagers here in the Czech Republic is that I feel that almost any activity which meets the students’ needs and interests can turn into something really valuable. Such an activity may require next to no planning and preparation, yet it can yield lots of amazing results. I cherish the moments when in a matter of seconds, a classic game-like activity, such as some of the above-mentioned examples, changes itself into a complex, meaningful, and authentic lesson. It’s exciting when we suddenly find ourselves totally immersed in what we are doing and when my students ditch the initial anxiety and/or reluctance and start speaking without inhibition. In such a case, I ditch the original plan and we just go with the flow.
About the Author
Hana Tichá is an EFL teacher with more than
20 years of experience with learners of all ages.
She holds a BA in teaching English as a Foreign Language to young learners, and an MA in TESOL from Masaryk University in Brno, the Czech Republic. Throughout her career, she has worked in the private as well as the state sector of education. She is currently teaching English to students aged 11 to 19 at a grammar school in the Czech Republic. Hana is a popular and regular blogger at https://hanatichaeltblog.wordpress.com/