All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. When I first heard the expression -- used by an English friend of mine some time ago -- I didn't understand what he meant exactly, so I looked it up on the internet. I discovered that the saying applied to me: I was working hard without taking time off. I was becoming boring and bored. Not only that, but I realised the same was happening to my learners! They were so focused on studying English for the exam that they weren't enjoying using the language to communicate with each other.
Can students achieve high grades without feeling bored in exam classes? I would argue yes -- absolutely. In fact, although exam classes are different from general English classes, there's no reason why they should be boring. Of course, students are under more pressure and need to work hard in an exam class. They need to do lots of reading and writing practice and it can get a bit repetitive at times.
But training learners in the four linguistic skills assessed in exams -- speaking, listening, writing and reading -- and developing their knowledge of vocabulary and grammar structures needn't always be serious and repetitive. Indeed, providing a fun and relaxing environment is essential for motivating learners. One way to achieve this is by introducing a few games into the mix and encouraging learners to make use of digital tools outside of class time.
In class -- make it a language game
Games provide access to another world, one that is typically safe from the consequences of the 'real' world. They can create a sense of fun and enjoyment, removing some of the stresses and pressures that are often associated with formal education. They also reduce the fear of making mistakes.
- Game one: The Goose game -- speaking skills
THE GAME: This board consists of a track with consecutively numbered spaces. Each player's piece is moved according to throws of a dice. Some spaces are marked with a bridge which lets the player move to some other specified position. There are also a few penalty spaces which force players to move backwards or lose one or more turns, or even go back to start.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: You can fill each space with a question which is typically asked during the speaking test. In a larger class, it's probably best for learners to play in small groups of four or five. You could get students to brainstorm questions in small groups before the game for other groups to use.
- Game two: Treasure hunt -- revision
THE GAME: It is one of many different types of games which can have one or more players who try to find hidden articles, locations or places by using a series of clues. Treasure hunts can be done indoor or outdoors.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: This is a fantastic revision game for vocabulary and grammar structures and a great way to round off a study unit or course. You can divide the clue cards in two parts: on the top, you can write a question about phrasal verbs, verb patterns, etc. On the bottom, you write hints for the location of the next question. The other side of the card is revealed only if the students answer the question!
- Game three -- Chain reaction
THE GAME: I adapted this game from a TV game show. Teams are given the first word of a chain and the first letter of the following word. Teams need to complete the chain.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: This game is a great way to practice collocations -- words that often go together. To make it more fun you can tell students that the first word is connected to a song so that they can guess its title at the end of the chain and get an extra point! For example: READ - BOOK - FLIGHT - NUMBER
At home -- make it social
From teenagers to adults, everyone uses social networks nowadays. Why don’t we use these online social structures to improve learners’ skills?
- Facebook -- Bitstrips
Bitstrips is a Facebook application that allows you to create your own avatar as a cartoon character. You can add your character into pre-set Bitstrips scenes. You can then share these scenes on Facebook or make greeting cards with them. If your friends are on Bitstrips with their own avatars, you can add them into your own comic strips.
You can create your own comic strips by adding speech bubbles. I found Bitstrips extremely useful for teaching learners comparative and superlatives, and the unreal past to express wishes and regrets. You could also ask your students to create their own Bitstrips using a particular grammar structure or specified lexical items and share with other students for feedback on use and accuracy.
- Facebook/Twitter -- Picture quizzes
Why not create your own multiple-answer questions such as the ones they may see in the exam in the form of a picture or cartoon. If you share them on Facebook and/or Twitter, your students can reply to them and, after a while (in the evening or the following day), you can post the correct answer.
In a nutshell...
Teaching and learning for exams needn't be boring. If you vary the activities and teach through games and social networks, your students will feel relaxed and be more motivated to learn a foreign language. They will forget they are learning English just to take an exam! Don’t be dull, make it fun!