When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.
1. My weekend
We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:
You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!
You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own true/false statements. This can be further extended by getting students in pairs to recount your weekend from their notes and/or their own weekend.
2. Just a minute
Pupils work in small groups. Individuals try to talk for a minute without hesitating (i.e. drying up), repeating or deviating from the topic. This works well with good intermediate and advanced level students. You can give easy topics to intermediates and harder ones to advanced level students. This can be great preparation for an oral exam. I'd begin by improvising an example of your own to demonstrate as a model.
This is definitely an "output" task but one which can encourage students to speak fearlessly with an ear on fluency rather than accuracy.
3. Would I lie?
For intermediate to advanced level. Students try to work out which three of six statements are not true by asking you questions. You prepare five statements about yourself, three true and two false, and write them on the board. For example:
• My brother has twin sons.
• I have three cats.
• If I’d been a boy, I would’ve been called George.
• My family was brought up in Spain.
• My favourite movie is The Sound of Music.
• My father was an extra in Star Wars.
You can ask the class how many of the statements they think are false. Then tell them there are three. Tell them they have to work out which by asking you questions, listening to your answers and watching your reaction. You can embroider your answers as much as possible, giving the right number of hints depending on how fast you think your class is.
Let the students ask questions until they have decided which ones they believe (by a show of hands). Give them the real answer. You could add an element of competition by putting the class into pairs or small groups, with each grouping coming up with their chosen two false statements.
An extension to this task is to ask students to write down similar statements for themselves – three true and three false. Divide them into groups and repeat as above with one person from the group being questioned by the others.
4. Exploiting a simple picture
This is an extremely simple, zero preparation and fun idea for creating conversation lessons with high intermediate or advanced level classes. You take a simple picture featuring a couple of people and use it as the basis for some imaginative storytelling.
What's her name?
What's his name?
Where are they? What country? What town?
What's their relationship?
Did they meet recently?
Are they work colleagues?
How old are they?
What are they eating?
What are they talking about?
What is she like as a person? What's he like?
What are their interests?
Why do they look so happy?
How did they meet? When? Long ago?
If they are married, have they been married before?
What were they doing before they met at the restaurant?
What are they going to do next?
What do they do for a living?
What do they think of their jobs?
Have they always done that?
What did they used to do?
Now, how the conversation develops depends on just how imaginative your students are. You would do well to tell the students at the outset to be as daring as possible. They may take you in some interesting directions; or you may need to prompt them to use their imaginations a bit more by suggesting some more outrageous ideas, e.g. he has two wives, she is a spy, he is an ex convict, they are having an affair, and so on.
I would probably do this a teacher-led task, but with some classes you hand out a list of suggested questions and get the students to work in pairs or small groups. This would lead to a variety of stories which can be compared later on.
When you do this type of activity students come up with different scenarios. This can generate further debate. If you are leading the lesson, you may have to lead them along what seems like the most fruitful linguistic and creative path.
It's easy to encourage the use of different time frames - past, present and future - and to go on from speaking to writing or more listening. For example, you could make up your own back story to the couple, describe it in TL to the class, whilst they take notes, then feed back the account to a partner or the whole class.
How about getting them to write an imagined dialogue between the couple, once their story is established? Or how about getting the students to find their own picture and build an imaginative story around it, either spoken, written or both.
5. Word association
Give an example of how it works, then do it as a whole class activity, either working round in order or moving randomly from pupil to pupil. Stress that students should not plan words in advance and that they are allowed to pass. With the right class they can do it in small groups or pairs. This works at all levels.
You can use the game to develop quick vocabulary retrieval reflexes and to illustrate how humans organise words in the brain.
A similar and effective alternative is to build silly stories one word at a time, moving around the class. Sentences need to be grammatical, so in this case the task develops both meaning and syntactic and morphological skills. Tell students they can say "full stop" (period) if the sentence comes to a natural end.
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