Here’s a list of 10 timeless activities that will become your trusted companions in the classroom. From digital quizzes that infuse technology into learning, to interactive interviews that promote language fluency, these activities will bring out the best in your students. Whether you’re sparking lively debates, encouraging creativity through poster-making, or immersing students in captivating storytelling, these activities can form the backbone of your lessons.
1. Creating guides for foreigners
I’m a firm believer in having students create content that is meaningful and relevant to them, so creating guides for foreigners is a perfect place to start. This can be in the form of brochures, leaflets, posters, videos, or however far the students’ imaginations can stretch.
Beginner students can focus on grammar such as talking about their favorite things in their cities (“I like soccer. You can play soccer in Yokohama park”), giving directions (“The museum is next to the train station”), or introducing local landmarks (“Have you ever been to Tokyo tower? It is big and beautiful.”). Intermediate students can practice giving suggestions (“If you like ramen, you should visit Ichiran Ramen in Fukuoka”), relative pronouns (“In a restaurant in Osaka, there is a robot that can cook your dinner”), or using the passive voice (“The castle was built by the king in the 15th century”). For more advanced students, well they can be tasked with writing entire guidebook pages if you like.
With this activity, it’s a great chance for the students to physically produce something. Being able to hold onto something they’ve created is a fantastic motivation booster, and to really take this activity to its peak level you can actually give these guides to foreigners: put them in local train stations; hand them out on the streets; put them on notice boards; or share them with schools in other countries. If students know their work will be seen by others they’ll try just that extra bit harder.
2. Physical materials
Physical materials, like those mentioned above, are also a great way for the students to practically use their reading skills.
Need a lesson on the passive voice? Put posters around the room and have students find out who their favourite books were written by, who their favourite sports were invented by, or who their favourite movies were directed by.
Practicing comparatives and superlatives? Showing the students a video about the tallest mountains, the fastest animals, or the longest rivers will be much more engaging than a dull worksheet with the same info.
Alongside increasing student engagement, activities like these will increase their active listening and reading skills and train them to look out for relevant data in a variety of formats (useful for future tests!).
Another effective way to increase students’ active reading and listening skills is by “retelling”. The simplest form of this is to show the students a picture and have them tell their partner what they have seen. You can then incrementally increase the complexity of the pictures, then move on to short videos, then audio, then short passages, then long stories. To start, you will have to coach the students on what key elements to look/listen out for. These will be the nouns, verbs, prepositions, and adjectives.
Examples I’ve used have included YouTube videos of British fairy tales (Goldilocks, Jack and the Beanstalk) and comic strips (Peanuts, Doraemon). Don’t forget to make the “retelling” fun and engaging, too. Students can create comic strips of their own, record ‘audiobooks’, or make skits or short plays.
4. Digital quizzes
By now, pretty much every student anywhere on the planet has their own tablet to use at school. So getting them to use it for English studies is probably a good idea. There are a lot of ways to do this, but the simplest is to create digital quizzes. Kahoot, Quizizz, Bamboozle… the list of free quiz websites goes on and on.
Each site offers a variety of question types to choose from: multiple-choice; fill-in-the-blanks; matching; polls; drawing; open-ended, and more. They have themes, unique usernames and avatars, and sound effects- everything that a student in 2023 would want from an English class. And that’s just for the students. Teachers can create the quiz, share it with the students, and then sit back and relax for the rest of the class. You can also keep your creations in a library, share them with others, use quizzes created by others, and save the trees at the same.
A staple of the English classroom. But are you using them to their full potential? Having the students stand up and ask another 20 teenagers the same question probably isn’t going to have the desired effect you’re hoping for (unless, of course, that desired effect is boredom…).
Instead, make the students care about the process.
– What are the questions they’re asking? Did they create the questions themselves? Do they care about the topic?
– What will they do with the collected answers? Is there a way to use the data? Can you gamify the process?
A few tactics that have proven successful in the past have included: teaching the students how to create charts/graphs with their collected data; putting the students into teams with specific data collection goals (for example, Team A must “prove” that tennis is the most popular sport by asking leading questions, while Team B tries to actually find out the truth); or assigning each student a role (one student must answer all questions angrily, one must answer only in lies, on must always be a contrarian, etc.). Quite often, by offering the students a persona to adopt, this simple activity will take on a whole new lease of life and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the grammar retention rate.
6. Find the mistakes
Each time you correct the students’ mistakes, do you make a note of the recurring errors? Well, you should! Quite often, certain aspects of grammar are just lost in translation. From Japanese to English, common examples are the omission of articles (a/an, the) or pluralization (apple vs apples). Take time every once in a while to review these concepts by having the students find the mistakes in written texts, listening examples, or even conversations with you. But it’s not enough to just find the mistakes and ask for the corrections. Try to elicit the reasoning behind the mistakes.
Here are some examples: “Yesterday, I eated an apple.” (“eat” is an irregular verb, so we must use “ate”. Similar to “went”, “bought”, etc.) “Tom like pizza. They likes pizza” (Incorrect use of the third-person verb agreement “s”.) “I enjoy listening music.” (“listen to” is an intransitive verb, so we need to use the preposition “to”. Similar examples are “go to”, “arrive at”, etc.) The key is to make sure the students understand why they are mistakes, and how to remember not to make them moving forward.
7. Answers to questions
Presenting students with a sheet of questions to answer is always going to feel like a chore. Presenting students with a sheet of answers to question is always going to feel like a challenge. Instead of asking “What is the tallest mountain in Japan?”, consider just showing the answer, “Mt. Fuji.” and make the students decide what the correct question should be.
This is an activity that can be used for every grammar point you teach, and the answers can be adapted depending on your students’ level. For example, “Mt. Fuji.” or “Mt. Fuji is the tallest.”, or “Mt. Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan.”.
One of my absolute favourite classes is teaching prepositions. After going through the basics of “Put your pencil on the desk, under your armpit, in your nose…”, I describe a scene to the students and have them draw what they hear. Then, in pairs, one student will describe a scene while their partner draws it. It’s not a difficult, or particularly innovative activity, but sometimes simple is best.
There is one word that is guaranteed to inspire dread in both teachers and students alike: debate. If you work in a public school, at least once a year will you be asked to run a debate for the students, and the topics in the textbooks will be awful. In Fukuoka, junior high school students are expected to debate whether they prefer a school lunch or a boxed lunch… yawn.
The first rule to a successful debate class is to make it something the students actually have an opinion on. If there’s not much wiggle room for the topics, then you’ll have to get creative. For ‘school’ topics, you could try “Should school start at 10am?”, “Should we use smartphones at school?” or the wildly popular debate topic “Should we study English at school?”.
I like to keep things interesting by having multiple debate topics for the session. At the start of the session, make groups, and have each group write their pros and cons for all the debate questions. Then, each group will randomly be assigned just one of the questions, and they have to decide on their position, for or against. Next, give the groups time to collate their thoughts and do some research (for example, can they find examples of schools that start later in the day and what impact does that have on student test scores, or happiness). Finally, it’s time for the debate. Each group presents their argument, and because every student has spent time at the start of the class thinking of the pros and cons for each question, there should be plenty of opinions to share. If, however, the students are less than forthcoming, have a couple of probing questions printed and ready to hand out for students to read. Really try to make the students give reasons for their answers, remind them of their research, and help them with grammar cheat sheets if necessary.
10. Social media
This final activity has yielded some of the most successful writing exercises that I have ever witnessed. A common task for language learners is to write a letter, to a teacher, friend, family member, or future-self. That’s all well and good, except it doesn’t really inspire the students. The person they’re writing to already knows any details that can be shared in the letter, and the end result is often just a boring undertaking.
If you were to ask the students who they really wanted to write a letter to, they’d say their favourite athlete, artist, author, or YouTuber. So, let them write those letters instead. Oh, and no-one writes letters anymore so they’ll be sending Instagram messages, YouTube comments, or tweets. Set up a class social media account and let the students actually send those messages. You will be amazed at how much effort they put into it, and how much they care. What’s even more amazing is that quite often the recipient will send a reply. Some of best memories I have as a teacher is handing students a printout of a reply to their message. (We’ve had replies from professional baseball players, volleyball players, musicians, TikTokers and even one Olympic champion!).
As you can see, English classes don’t always have to follow the same old formula. By having a set of out-of-the-box activities, your students will feel inspired and engaged.