By Dylan Gates

23 October 2013 - 16:34

English teachers can use objects like a dart board in the classroom. Photo (c) Richard Matthews, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
English teachers can use objects like a dart board in the classroom. Photo ©

Richard Matthews, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Dylan Gates, a freelance teacher trainer and winner of the latest TeachEnglish featured blog award, writes about how English teachers can use ordinary household items in the classroom to make learning fun.

Picture the scene. It’s your child’s birthday and you have searched high and low for the perfect present: something modern, state-of-the-art, perfect for a ‘digital native’. You hand the present to your child, they rip off the wrapping paper, tear open the box and seize the gift inside with both hands.

Suddenly, they throw your ‘perfect educational toy’ to one side and spend the next few hours doing inventive and wonderful things with a cardboard box!

We don’t always need to use cutting-edge educational resources in our English lessons. I’ve used simple, familiar objects in many of my most successful and effective lessons. These objects are tangible (instantly attractive to kinaesthetic learners); they don’t need an instruction manual (our learners know what to do with them even if they don’t know what they are called in English) and they are used for practical purposes in real-life, thus making our lessons more concrete and less abstract. Finally, by using them in playful ways, we might reduce our learners’ inhibitions.

So, before writing this post, I set myself a challenge to buy four cheap and familiar objects, which could be used in a variety of ways with language learners. Read on to see which items I bought and ways I thought they could be used:

1. An egg-timer or hourglass

This can be used for:

  • timed speaking activities. This is especially useful for exam practice.
  • games and quizzes. For example, ‘Just a minute’ (when students have to speak about a particular topic for a minute) or ‘Name five objects beginning with the letter S in 15 seconds’ type games.
  • mingling activities where students have to change partners after a set amount of time. For example, ‘speed dating’ or ‘elevator pitch’ activities.
  • collaborative writing tasks. When the time is up, the students have to pass their written text to another student. For example, a consequences game in which a student writes down a sentence and then passes the piece of paper on to the person on their left, who then has to continue the story.

2. A referee’s whistle

This can be used for:

  • identifying word and sentence stress. The teacher ‘blows’ a word or phrase on the whistle, blowing harder on the stressed syllable or word. You can blow correct and incorrect stress patterns, and ask learners to identify which is correct.
  • word and sentence stress bingo. Students have a list of words or phrases and you blow stress patterns on your whistle. The students try to mark off words and phrases on their bingo card, which have the same pattern of emphasis.
  • demonstrating long and short vowel sounds. This is great for helping learners identify correct vowel sounds in similar sounding words, such as 'ship' and 'sheep'.
  • managing classroom activities. You could use the whistle when you want learners to sit down, stand up, or change partners; or to get students' attention and identify errors. You'd need to be sensitive with adult learners, as they might find this offensive or patronising.

3. A soft-tip dart board

This can be used for:

  • learning numbers in class. Students throw the darts, and teams win points for being the first to add up the numbers hit on the dartboard correctly.
  • vocabulary games. You can replace the numbers with letters, using Post-it notes or stickers. As there are only 20 numbers on a dartboard and 26 letters, you'll need to tell students that the remaining six letters are the inner or outer bullseye. Put the students in teams. When a member of each team hits a particular letter, the other team have to do something to win a point. For example, if a student hits the letter ‘B’, the other team have to think of an item of clothing that begins with the letter ‘B’.
  • learning phonemic symbols. Replace the numbers with phonemic symbols for vowels, diphthongs, and consonants. With a little modification, you can get students identifying and practising these symbols and sounds in a fun activity.
  • making quizzes and grammar auctions more fun. Compile a list of 20 questions, and get your students to answer questions related to the numbers they hit.

4. A plastic or tin box

This can be used for:

  • reviewing vocabulary on a daily, weekly, or per lesson basis. Write new words and their definitions on small pieces of paper, and store them in the box.
  • playing definition games. Ask the students take a piece of paper from the box and define the word written on it to their team-mates.
  • creating stories. Students pick out a piece of paper and have to use the word on it to tell an anecdote or a story, in a story circle activity
  • helping students identify word types. Set a time limit, and ask students or teams to categorise words according to their type.

One final but essential point: to really engage your students, why not encourage them to create their own learning activities using these objects? Who knows what inventive and wonderful ideas they might come up with!

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