Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Seat of My Pants: Biographies Game and Corners

When I was doing my CELTA (check the tags if you're interested in reading about that experience), one of the instructors cautioned me not to rely too heavily on improvising in the classroom.

"You're extremely good at it, but you shouldn't rely on that instead of lesson planning," he told me during one of my evaluations. He's right, of course. Occasionally, though, I have a class where I really have no other option other than to go in flying blind. I have become a master of endlessly modifying ESL/EFL games, and occasionally creating new games on the spot.

Like today: a review class where, for the moment, the two students (Max and Jerry) were on completely different pages. The Jeopardy! game I had based on material I knew Jerry had studied would not be fair to Max.

I ran through my stable of EFL/ESL games: Pictionary, Simon Says (in the form of "Please Game," to hopefully teach some manners), and Corners (which I'll explain in a minute). Fortunately, the boys were happy and excited enough to not even mind fairly dull sentence drilling, which I used to stall for time until I came up with: Biographies.


Goal: To practice third person singular conjugation and vocabulary; forming questions; it can probably be an okay ice-breaker (but honestly I think there are better ones—maybe use this to follow up "Two Truths And A Lie").

Materials Needed: Blackboard/whiteboard; flashcards (totally optional)

Levels: All.

Ages: All.

Procedure: Choose one student to sit in a chair facing away from the board. The other students come up to the board and write sentences about the other student. For example:

"Jerry likes chicken."
"Jerry doesn't like puppies."

If you have a lot of students, you can do this in teams, or figure out a way to take turns. When you have a predetermined number of sentences on the board, have the subject of the sentences turn around. Another student then turns the sentence into a question. You can make the question yourself, of course, if the students are as low as Max and Jerry are.

"Jerry, do you like chicken?"

If he does, the student/team that wrote, "Jerry likes chicken." gets a point. If he doesn't, no one gets a point. If you want, you can also award points for writing a perfect sentence, forming a perfect question, or correcting a mistake. It's up to you.

My examples here are pretty simple English because I was working with young, low-level students. Obviously the only limit to this game is the level of your students' English. More ideas off the top of my head:

"Jerry has a large family."
"Jerry wants to travel to Europe."
"Jerry thinks Lee Myeong-bak is a great president."
"Jerry ate a frog in France."

For the flashcard variation, you can give the "subject" student a pile of flashcards to rifle through. She can hold up ones she likes (or doesn't like!) to give the other students hints (or to try to trick them).

The points are optional as well, if you think your students might be the kind to purposefully throw the game for the other team. It's been my experience, though, whenever I find a potential exploit in one of my games, it simply never occurs to my kids. You might have to be mindful with the younger ones (or even with all ages, sadly) that they don't use it as an excuse to bully or tease anyone.

Never forget that you can also sit in the chair and make yourself the subject of their sentences!


Goal: Reviewing vocabulary; thinking about categories and ordering.

Materials Needed: A classroom; flashcards (optional)

Levels: All. 

Ages: Probably best with elementary age children; I find the older my students get, the less they want to get out of their seats. 

Procedure: Designate one corner of the room as one category ("fruits") and the other as another category ("vegetables"). You can use more than two if you want. Say a sentence, vocabulary word, or hold up a flashcard and have the students find the right category. If they're right, they get a point. If they're wrong, no point (or out). Or eliminate points and do it like reverse "Four Corners" style, only instead of students getting out at random, they get out if they make an English mistake (going to the "vegetable" corner when you say "banana"). If there's an intermediate or grey area and one student goes against the grain (you say "tomato" and she chooses fruit even though everyone else chose vegetable), she can even stay in if she gives a good argument about why her answer is right—in English, obviously.

When I played this today, I had two corners: "good" and "bad." We reviewed adjectives (okay, fine, terrible awesome, etc) and phrases (I like..., I don't like..., I can't stand..., etc). Really, the sky's the limit on this one. You can use it to review characters in a story, minimal pairs (have a P corner and an F corner and use words like "frog" and "piano"), and so much more. You can also choose a student to run the game and say the words/sentences or hold the flashcards—and see if they can decide who is right and wrong on their own.

Enjoy! Post any improvements you may have, and let me know how these go over in your classroom.

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