By David Petrie

01 July 2019 - 15:16

Two wooden chairs and a table on a beach
'Learners have to look at the seating plan and decide which guests should sit next to each other and which should not.' Photo ©

bertvthul used under licence and adapted from the original

Do you want your English language learners to work toward a common goal in the classroom? Teacher David Petrie, who won the TeachingEnglish blog award, tells us his tried-and-tested methods.

One of my favourite revision activities with my classes is 'backs to the board', also known as 'hotseat'. 

I divide the class into two teams. One learner from each team sits with their backs to the board, facing their teams. I write a word on the board, and the teams try to elicit the target word from the learner at the front of the room, without saying it.  The person who guesses correctly first, wins a point for their team.

I use this activity a lot. But recently, with one class, I have stopped using it completely, because the game becomes too competitive. This shows when learners accuse the other team of cheating, and get upset with their team member if the other team wins the point.  

In his book Transformational Classroom Management, John Shindler differentiates between healthy and unhealthy competition. He argues that the best competitive activities are those where:

  • the competition is clearly symbolic
  • the competition is short
  • everyone feels like they can win
  • what the learners do is valued more than the result.

So, how do we make classroom games more collaborative, while maintaining the enjoyment that some learners get from competition?

Put points into a common pot, not team pots

In 'backs to the board', if both teams can get a combined 12 points in five minutes, I reduce the amount of homework they get.

In my class, homework is usually from the workbook. So, I will reduce the amount of homework by letting them skip the exercise which reviews the vocabulary we covered in the game. 

Build vocabulary pyramids

I adapted this idea from the Hot Spot series of young learner coursebooks, and use it to review vocabulary from previous lessons. 

At the start of a lesson, I ask learners to write the names of:

  • one activity
  • two animals
  • three household chores
  • four sports
  • five foods
  • six colours.

They write this with one activity in the top line, followed by two animals in the second line, until the list looks like a pyramid with six colours at the bottom. 

You can adapt this to other word categories, and extend it by adding extra levels. 

Learners take turns to write each word on the board, so each person writes one or two words per activity. However, the game is collaborative because the other learners can help the writer if they get stuck.

You can also group learners at the beginning of the activity, to create the lists together. 

Use information gap activities

Learner A and learner B have different, but complementary, information. They need to communicate it to each other, in order to complete the task. 

You can do this with vocabulary review crosswords. Give Learner A a crossword with all the 'down' answers, and Learner B a crossword with all the 'across' answers. 

Learners aren’t allowed to say the answer directly. They explain it to their partner, who guesses the correct word and writes it onto their half of the crossword grid.

At the end of the activity, the learners compare their grids to see if they have everything correct.

You can find crosswords like these in the Pairwork series of books by Peter Watcyn-Jones and Deirdre Howard-Williams. You can also make your own, using online crossword generator tools like Puzzle Maker, and by choosing vocabulary items from previous lessons. 

Create a human sentence

This is helpful for learners with lower language levels who are struggling with the auxiliary verb system (be, do and have). 

I give learners a piece of paper or mini-whiteboard with one word of a short sentence. They have to physically arrange themselves in the correct order to make the sentence.

For example, I give five learners one of these words each:

  • mother
  • London
  • from
  • is
  • my.

They can create the sentence:

  • My mother is from London.

Then, I ask them to make it a question:

  • Is my mother from London?

With this sentence:

  • My dog likes running in the park.

I ask learners to make it negative, or a question:

  • My dog doesn’t like running in the park.
  • Does my dog like running in the park?

Learners can also work in groups or pairs to arrange the paper words on a table.

Build a paragraph 

This is a more advanced version of the human sentence.

Give learners a longer text, like a small paragraph, with sentences on different strips of paper. 

Give each learner one strip of paper and ask them to put themselves in the correct physical sequence.

Alternatively, give a complete set of strips of paper, jumbled up, to a group of learners to sequence together. 

If you use a short text from a listening task, learners can then listen to check their sequences.

Plan a dinner party 

In Penny Ur’s book 'Discussions that work', she writes about organisation and layout problems. 

One example from the book is an imaginary dinner party. Give learners a provisional seating plan, and an information sheet about 15 guests at a dinner party. It includes their likes, dislikes and character traits. You can use the example in the book, or create one yourself. 

Learners have to look at the seating plan and decide which guests should sit next to each other and which should not. Guests who have something in common, for example, should probably sit together. 

One alternative is to allocate the role of each guest to a learner. The group has to discover who each other are, and to try and arrange themselves in the most appropriate order. 

Another alternative is for learners to create their own personas, and to agree on a shared seating plan for themselves.

Teachers, visit our TeachingEnglish website for more lesson plans and activities, and find out how you can become a TeachingEnglish blogger .

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