By Don Merritt

03 April 2019 - 13:57

Bowl of cherries and two pieces of paper on a table
'In this picture I can see a bowl of cherries.' Photo ©

Neven Krcmarek used under licence and adapted from the original

Don Merritt, an English language coordinator and performing arts teacher in Boston, Massachusetts, and former British Council teacher, uses these low-preparation activities to understand what his class have learned. 

These three low-preparation activities for teachers of English have helped my learners to communicate their ideas about audio or written texts, conversation topics and images.

They also show me the language my learners know, and their language gaps. 

They're from Harvard’s Project Zero Visible Thinking initiative, and you can adapt them for learners at any language level. 

An activity to generate interest in the lesson topic 

Time: the activity takes up to ten minutes

Preparation: to begin the activity See, Think, Wonder, bring an image or object to class that connects to the lesson's topic, and write the sentence stems on the board:

  • I see…
  • I think…
  • I wonder…


The first time you introduce a routine you may want to provide learners with an example and use the script below.

Show your learners the object, and ask them to take one minute to think about:

  1. what they see
  2. what they think about it
  3. what it makes them wonder, or question.

Model the procedure for them. For example:

  1. 'In this picture I can see a bowl of cherries, a table, four chairs and two people.'
  2. 'I think the two people are relatives because they look alike. They both have red hair and they are sitting next to each other.'
  3. 'I wonder why the boy with the blue shirt is crying. I wonder if the boy in green cares.’

Then, choose one learner who has a strong language level to demonstrate the activity.

Put the learners in pairs and give them one minute of thinking time. Then, ask them to tell their partner what they see, think and wonder.

To extend the activity, show the learners several objects or images related to the lesson, and ask them how they connect.

An activity to understand the gist of a text

Colour, Symbol, Image guides the language learner to show their understanding of the meaning of a reading or listening text.

Time: the activity takes five minutes, but you can extend it

Materials: a piece of paper for each learner.

Script and procedure

Introduce your topic for the day. Before your learners read or listen to their text, explain this routine to them. 

They will read or listen once. Then, they will write down a colour or draw a symbol or image that represents its meaning.

For example, if the listening is about first meetings, a learner might write the colour green to represent the first meeting. To some people, a first meeting means the beginning of something, like a seed.

As a symbol, someone might draw two circles that overlap. As an image, a person might draw some trees, a bench, and two stick figures to show where the meeting took place.

Model the procedure once.

After they have finished drawing, give your learners one more opportunity to read or listen to the text.

Then, ask them to turn to the person beside them to describe and show their colours, symbols and images. You can organise this in several different ways; for example, Learner A can explain their colour, symbol and image to Learner B, and then they can switch roles. 

In the language classroom, I recommend you use every opportunity to have learners develop their conversation skills.

You can extend the activity by having Learner A ask Learner B questions, like:

  • Why did you choose the colour black?
  • Will you tell me about your symbol?
  • Can you tell me more about that?

Then, they can switch roles. 

As you monitor the conversations, listen and look for misconceptions and language gaps.

You can also extend this into a mingle activity to make your learners' language more authentic. Give Learner A two minutes to answer Learner B's questions, and then have them reverse roles. After four minutes, have the learners change partners.

An activity that uses sentence stems to know if learners understand what you have taught

This activity can give you insight into your learners' misconceptions about the lesson or course topic. Then, it will be easier for you to anticipate problems in future lessons. 

Time: the activity takes up to five minutes

Preparation: none


Toward the end of your lesson, write these sentence stems on the board:

  • I used to think...but now I think…

Give your learners a few minutes to complete the sentence stems on paper. I often collect these, to know which learners still struggle with the concept we learned during the lesson. If your lesson is about gerunds, a learner might write:

  • I used to think 'I am liking Boston' was correct, but now I think 'I like Boston' is correct.

You can do this at the end of a lesson, or the end of a term. 

You can use this routine during a lesson, after a reading or listening text. For example, if your recording is about religious festivals around the world, your learners might write:

  • I used to think Diwali was only celebrated in India. But now I know that Diwali is celebrated in many countries, including Singapore.

Extend the activity by using the writing as a scaffolding step. Then, ask everyone in the class to mingle and share what they learned in the lesson.

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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