What can teachers do when classroom technology stops working? Cristina Cabal, latest winner of the British Council's TeachingEnglish blog award for her post on pronunciation, suggests nine activities for revising English vocabulary using simple slips of paper.
Nowadays, it seems very simple to plan a lesson that makes use of the many tools available online, especially as more and more of us have access to the Internet in our classrooms. But while technology is increasingly part of our teaching, there are times when it can cause problems and frustrations for teachers, such as when the Wi-Fi stops working or the computer shuts down, leaving you with a one-hour lesson to teach and no plan B up your sleeve.
One of the best ways to deal with this situation is to use slips of paper – a resource available to every teacher in any given situation. The following activities have never let me down.
Using slips of paper to revise vocabulary
1. For this activity, select the vocabulary you want to revise and write each word or expression on individual slips of paper. When you're ready to begin, pick one of the words and call out a definition, synonym, antonym, etc. The first student to guess the word gets the slip of paper. The winner is the student who has the most slips at the end of the activity. You might also want to write a point value on the back of the slip of paper, of 'one', 'two' or 'three' based on the difficulty of the word or expression.
2. You might also want to revise pronunciation. This is a more challenging activity, as students need to be familiar with phonetic symbols. Write the phonetic transcription for the words that need to be revised on slips of paper, big enough for students to see from a distance. Follow the procedure above, but show the cards rather than call out a definition.
3. Give every student a slip of paper, each with a different word that needs to be revised. Allow some time to make sure students know how to explain the meaning of the word. This is an important step as you want the activity to be fluent and lively. Have students, one by one, explain their words to the class as a whole. The first student to guess correctly wins the slip of paper. You might want to be in the middle to help the process along, and you should begin the activity with a demonstration.
4. This is a mingle activity. Give every student a slip of paper with different words that need to be revised. (Alternatively, you can give students a blank piece of paper and ask each of them to choose a word they think needs to be revised). Before the activity begins, make sure they know how to explain their word. Have students stand up and talk to the person next to them, explaining their words. Encourage them not to use gestures or sounds to define their word. Once the students have guessed their words, ask them to swap their slips of paper and move on to find a new partner.
5. Divide the class into two or three groups. Ask each group to give themselves a team name. Write these names on the board to keep score of the points they get. Place slips of paper with words to be revised face down on a table and ask a student from one of the teams to take the 'hot seat'. This student then has one minute to explain as many of the words to their team as possible without saying the words or any part of them. After one minute, give the team a score for how many words they guessed. Now get a student from the next team to take the hot seat and continue through the paper slips in the same way. To make it more fun, you could use a classroom timer.
Using slips of paper to practise vocabulary in writing
Every day, we give students new vocabulary, and although we encourage them to revise it at home and do plenty of revision exercises in class, they still find it hard to use when they speak and write. It is with this in mind that I have designed the following activity.
6. On the walls of the class, stick slips of paper with the words you want students to use. Write them big enough for the students to see from a distance. I would suggest a minimum of 20, including verbs, phrasal verbs, idiomatic expressions, connectors, etc.
Arrange students in pairs or in threes. Tell them they are going to write a short story beginning with these words 'He turned around and promised himself never to come back'. (Click on this story-starting generator for more sentence ideas).
Tell students they will need to include at least ten of the words displayed on the walls of the class. Ask them to stand up and have a first look at the words with their teams, discussing and mentally designing a first draft of the story. Tell students that at any point during the activity they can discard words and choose new ones.
Give each group a sheet of differently coloured paper to write their stories, underlining the target vocabulary they have used. Stories are then stuck on the walls for the rest of the class to read and vote on the best one. Allow 30 minutes to write the first draft and then another 15 minutes to complete the activity.
7. Although activities that involve translating sentences may seem old-fashioned, I have found that these can work well, especially with older students. The following translation exercise is a lot of fun in a monolingual class. Get students to work in pairs. Give them blank slips of paper to write their sentences. On the board, display the sentence you want them to translate. Allow about two minutes to write the sentence. Encourage students to write their sentences large enough for you to be able to have a quick read from a distance. When the time is up, ask students to raise up the slips for you and the rest of the class to see. Correct translations will get one point. Sentences with mistakes can be used later for pairs or groups to correct and discuss, or for whole-class feedback.
Using slips of paper to practise new vocabulary in speaking activities
8. Here's an activity that could be used at the end of a topic-based lesson. Explain to students that they are going to do a speaking activity, during which you will give them each a slip of paper containing a secret word. Now, put students in pairs and give them ten questions to talk about on various topics. Once they start speaking, give each student the slip of paper containing their secret word. Students in pairs talk about their first question. The aim of the game is to introduce the secret word at any point in their conversation. Set a timer and tell students they have to try to use the word in the given time (around three to four minutes). When the time's up, they will need to guess what the other student's secret word is. Give a different slip of paper for question number two or redistribute the secret words to different pairs. Continue in this way with each new question.
9. Stick slips of paper on the classroom walls with words or expressions that need to be revised – for example, on the topic of relationships. Ask students to work in pairs and give them a photocopy with ten questions about the topic. Ask the pairs to stand up next to a slip of paper. The aim of the exercise is to talk about the question and, in doing so, include the word displayed on the wall. Students move clockwise to the next word and do the same with question number two. Set about four minutes per question.