Song Grab

While I really love using music in lessons, with both YL and adult classes, I do sometimes run out of activities to do while listening to the song. As I suspect do many teachers, I often resort to the gapfill even though I don’t much like it; it’s sedentary, lacks interaction and fun, and provides an inauthentic level of support through having so much of the text provided for listeners. Of course lower-level learners need more scaffolding, but for higher levels I’ve been trying a few alternatives that take the training wheels off a little bit…

One activity I recently tried is the “Song grab”, which can be used to focus on a specific sound or to practice homophones. I tried it with my highest level of Primary 3 (with Let it Go – they chose the song as a reward) and with an UpperInt level adult class (with The Man Who, since we were about to do relative clauses). Both classes responded well, liking the kinaesthetic element and the direct competition with a partner, as well as the increased level of challenge.

Activity Name: Song Grab

Language Focus: n/a
Skills Focus: listening for specific sounds / homophones
Suitable For:
Materials or Resources: Recording of the song of your choice, plus pre-prepared cut-ups and a lyrics sheet to hand out at the end.


image taken from via google search licensed for non-commercial reuse


Choose a song. It can be one that links to the rest of the course if you like, or simply one for a stand-alone listening lesson. Ideally it should contain at least a few examples of the sound you’re focusing on, e.g. the contracted form of “will”.

Before the lesson, go through the song careful and choose the words you want your learners to listen for. Add them to individual slips of paper. Then, for each word, choose an alternative version the learners might plausibly mishear e.g. hole for whole, sun for son, will for well, sit in for sitting, and so on. Make some easier than others.Double check these false words don’t actually appear somewhere else in the song! Then add them to slips of paper too.  Create one set of real and fake words for each pair of students. I’ve found that for a 3 minute song, about 15 words to listen for (so 30 slips of paper) works well.

In class, explain that students are going to work on their careful listening, and will have to identify specific words that they hear. Set learners up in pairs, and give each pair a shuffled set of words, and instruct them to spread the words out, face up, between them. Allow some time for the learners to read through and familiarise themselves with the words.

Tell learners they will listen to a song and if they hear a word that is on one of the pieces of paper, they must “grab” (demo if needed) the paper as soon as possible – before their partner/enemy does! It’s a competition, after all.

A disincentive will be needed to prevent random grabbing, so warn the learners that only SOME of the words are in the song. They will score one point for each correct word they can grab first, but lose a point for every wrong word.

Play the song, twice if necessary, then hand out lyric sheets (it may help to have the target words in bold) and let students work out their scores. It may also be worth allowing another listen at this stage with the lyrics in front of them. After that, just proceed with the rest of the lesson using the song in whatever way you like!

I’ve found this activity really builds energy levels in class and is popular with my students, but perhaps more importantly, it’s really great practice for things like the challenging IELTS listening where a fine degree of specificity is essential.

Team Extreme!

This activity is a lot less versatile that ones I’ve been blogging up until now, but I wanted to try and increase my post frequency, and this is a “tried-and-tested” activity rather than just a “tried” one.

I’ve used this activity many times now when the language point of extreme adjectives comes up (also called strong, or various other terms). It is spread across two lessons in a way, since it involves introducing the language point, and the concept of a thesaurus in lesson one, and then playing the homework revision game in lesson two.

I like it because it’s a fast-paced fun start to a lesson as well as an active, competitive way of checking homework, and I really believe it’s important to check homework or learners can find it hard to be motivated to complete it. I also think thesaurus use is an skill we should be helping our learners to acquire. My learners usually enjoy getting some variety into their vocabulary, too.

Activity Name: Team Extreme

Language Focus: Extreme Adjectives
Skills Focus: Thesaurus use / Learner autonomy
Suitable For:
Materials or Resources: Can be done with nothing but a whiteboard and a few different coloured pens, but in the image you’ll see coloured post-its used for the different teams.

team extreme

photo taken by my lovely student “A”


Lesson 1: Preparation
In my context, for adults, extreme adjectives crop up at the Upper Intermediate level, in Cutting Edge Upper Intermediate Module 7, so I do them in the context of ‘big events’. I introduce them receptively via a semi-authentic text about the occupy movement done as a running dictation, and then we move into the language analysis part later in the lesson. Obviously, when and where and how you teach them is going to vary massively! For this activity, though, it doesn’t matter: teach extreme adjectives in whatever way you usually would.

Then when it’s time to set homework, either give the learners a list of the “normal” adjectives for which they learnt one or two extreme version during the lesson, or – to maybe challenge them further – a list of some more adjectives (choose ones that have many close synonyms). In the picture above you’ll see nine adjectives. I actually set 12 for homework, but only tested these nine to keep the activity a bit shorter due to time constraints.

Explain to learners that they are going to try to find some more synonyms for these words themselves using a special tool: a thesaurus. Check if anyone is already familiar with a thesaurus. If so, nominate them to explain it to the class. If not, do it yourself. I tend to make a bad joke about a word dinosaur at this stage. Learners laugh at it mostly to be polite, I think.

If you are able, demo your preferred online thesaurus. Some useful ones include, and

Lesson 2: Activity
At the start of the lesson, sort learners into teams. It’s best to think about who you can bank on having done the homework and make sure at least one of your “safe bets” is in each team.

Divide the board up into squares or columns, one for each vocab word you want to test. Give each team a different coloured board pen or set of post-its. You can allow them to use their homework notes if you are feeling generous (or if you think lots of them didn’t do the homework). Number each person in the team 1 – 4 (or five or six or however big your team is).

The basic objective is that each team must add as many words to the board as they can. However, only one person from the team can approach the board and add a word – first number one runs (*cough* walks quickly and safely) to the board, adds a word, then runs back and hands the pen/post-it stack to number 2, who rinses and repeats. However, they can’t add a word to the board which another team has already written, which is how tactics come into it. Do they add the ‘easy’ words first that they think everyone will have found? Do they focus on one word and add all their synonyms for that first?

Keep going until all the teams have run out of words to add, then review and remove any words that shouldn’t be there, giving explanations (e.g. it is normal, not extreme, it has a different meaning to what they thought). If you really want to be tough, remove them if they aren’t spelled correctly!

Count the words left on the board at the end in each colour to find out who is “TEAM EXTREME”!. And of course, make sure all the learners add any words they didn’t already know to their notebooks 🙂

Word Wheels (with a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum optional)

You may have seen “word wheels” in various newspapers on the puzzle pages; I was back in the UK for Christmas recently and saw my mum challenging herself to meet the suggested word target and I thought they would be interesting to try with my classes, so I used them in several of my classes in the first week back.

Like most of my favourite games, it’s materials light and very versatile. The same wheel can be used for different levels – it’s the output that differentiates it. I used this activity as a warmer but I think it would also make a nice filler or settler. Of course for adults or older secondary, you can just present it as a plain puzzle but to make it more “fun” for my primary classes I gave it a pirate theme! I found it offered loads of peer teaching opportunities, and really got them thinking about letter combinations in English which was exciting for me as a teacher.

With the young learners I just let them use the letters in any way they liked, and didn’t put any restrictions on word length either, but with the adults, who were a higher level class, I introduced some of the more traditional rules – they had to use the central letter each time, and words had to be three letters long or more. Also, if they found the nine-letter word, they got a bonus ten points! The word then led into the topic of the lesson, for an added little touch of cohesion.

Activity Name: [Pirate] Word Wheels

Language Focus: Vocabulary
Skills Focus: Spelling
Suitable For:
Materials or Resources: Can be done with nothing but a whiteboard and pen, – but if you want to jazz it up pirate-style then a pirate themed wheel image works well to make it more exciting for younger students.

screenie from my interactive flipchar

screenie from my interactive flipchart


If you’re going to go with the pirate theme, introduce it and use it for team names. It’s quicker to assign names – I had Captain Hook’s Crew, The Jolly Rogers, The Pretty Parrots, and Pirate Meg’s Posse (she’s in the coursebook, in case you haven’t heard of her) – but with a creative class they might like to choose their own names. I found that groups of four or five worked well – more and it’s hard for everyone to participate, less and there isn’t enough idea sharing.

Explain the basic concept, and try to elicit a few words from students who grasp the idea quickly. Write them on the board and try to visually show by moving letters how you used the words in the wheel to make them.

It might also be a good idea to ask learners if a certain word is possible, and elicit why it isn’t. For example, using the letters in the image above I used “DROP”, taking advantage of the common Arabic B/P confusion.

Then simply set a time limit, and let the learners get on with it while you monitor, encourage, praise and support. When the time’s up you can either make it more competitive and reward the team with the biggest word list, or combine all the lists to get a class total. Scoring it really is up to you, and will depend on your class and their natural dynamic. I did double points for pirate-themed words! No matter how you score it, though, it’s important to go through the word lists, as some groups will have found words others didn’t, and of course it encourages peer teaching to get the learners themselves to explain the meanings to each other.

For additional challenge try follow up questions such as “What’s the plural of that?” ” What’s the opposite?” “What part of speech is that?” and “Can you use that in a sentence for me?”.

With adults, if they enjoy the activity, you could also give them a link to where the “nine letter word” game can be played. However, warn them that the targets are designed for native speakers not learners so not to panic when they don’t hit them!

Overall this activity is sweet and simple, and rather fun – it’s going into my bank of things to be used again!

There’s a special prize on offer to the first person who finds the nine-letter word in the picture above and posts it in the comments.

enn oh you gee aitch tee ess … and crosses

There are a million and one ways you can use Noughts&Crosses in the language classroom, and I must admit it’s one of my favourite go-to games, because it’s easy to set up, materials-light, and adaptable.

I wanted to use it with my primary classes this weekend because I stupidly said in about week 3 of term that they’d play a different game every week in my class (!) and so I needed a game but due to some stuff going on, my planning was a bit more last-minute than I would have liked. So, I turned to trusty old Noughts&Crosses – known in Egypt as XO.

I wanted the game as a warmer for the start of the class and I knew I wanted to practice the spelling of some vocabulary from throughout the term so far, but I also wanted to get a feel for how much of the vocabulary from the unit we’re just about to start they already knew. So, I developed a spelling challenge variant on the game.

Activity Name: enn oh you gee aitch tee ess … and crosses

Language Focus: Vocabulary
Skills Focus: Spelling
Suitable For:
Materials or Resources: Grid drawn on IWB/whiteboard. A word list or their student books to choose words from. I’m currently using the great Footprints coursebook by Carol Read, who I basically want to be when I grow up. It has the core vocabulary for each unit helpfully listed at the front on one page. This makes life a lot easier! 


image taken from via google search licensed for non-commercial reuse


Show a blank N&C grid on the IWB/whiteboard. Elicit what the game is – be aware they may know it by another name. Run through how to play, or preferably nominate a learner to explain it to the class. This is a great opportunity to ninjateach the words “horizontally”, “vertically” and “diagonally” which are useful in several other activities e.g. wordsearches or battleships.

Explain that in your version of the game the learners can’t just choose a square – to draw their symbol they must WIN the square by correctly spelling a word.

At this point you can either play whole class or in pairs. The amount of time you want to spend on the activity will obviously be a factor. It is an easy game to set up so works without a whole class demo game, which is very teacher-centred of course, but I still like to do that first as some of the discussion that arises when teams are deciding how words should be spelled is very interesting and valuable.

If you’re playing whole class, divide into two teams (girls v boys, back row v front, blue v red, whatever works). Taking turns, teams choose a target square. The teacher then says a word or phrase and the learners have a minute to confer, decide on the spelling, and nominate someone to spell the word out loud. (Great teamwork/social skills focus here!) If the nominated learner gets it right, draw the symbol; if they don’t, don’t. Simple! Turn to other team and repeat until someone gets 3 in a row or it ends up a draw.

I recommend using fairly simple vocabulary here that you’re pretty sure they will get right, for speed if nothing else, but also make sure you have one stinker you’re pretty sure they will get wrong, so that you’re sure to be able to demonstrate what happens when the word is not spelled correctly.

Once the demo game is over, set the learners into pairs, X and O. I recommend running through the first pair of ask/answer spellings in lockstep, especially if you didn’t do a demo game.

  • Xs draw the grid shape in their notebooks.
  • Give Os the wordlist.
  • Xs choose a target square.
  • Os choose a word from the list, and say it for their partner.
  • Xs spell their word, and Os check.
  • If it’s correct, Xs can draw their symbol .

When everyone’s finished their word, tell Os to hand the wordlist/book to X. Now Os should target a square, Xs should choose and say a word, and Os should spell it to win the square.

If needed, repeat this process in lockstep once more, but I found that once was enough with my class, especially as I’d done a demo version already.

As I had several things I was trying to achieve, I actually got my learners to play in pairs twice. During the demo game and the first pair game they were allowed to use words from sections 1-3 on the word list (i.e. words we had already studied in class) but then for the last game, I told they they HAD to choose words from section 4; the section we hadn’t yet studied. Careful monitoring during the game then meant I had a good idea what words they already knew well enough to pronounce correctly and / or spell correctly, which then informed the rest of the lesson.

Overall, this managed to gameify what was, basically, a spelling test, and add in a little bit of social skills work and while it wasn’t the most exciting or ‘different’ activity ever, it served its purpose and the learners were steadily engaged. If I do this again – which I probably will at some point – I will make learners switch partners between games to add some more variety.

Mad Libs

This is an activity that a friend of mine who’s recently been off work ill had prepared and left for me to use while teaching her class of lower level teenagers as a cover, and which I then shamelessly stole from her.

I knew the game, of course (if you’re not familiar, you can read about it here) but had never previously thought about using it with my learners. Stupid me! – because it worked really well! My friend E had played this game with the class before which made trying it a lot simpler, since they were familiar with the structure of the activity. Since then, I’ve tried it with my own class, who were a bit younger (top age of Primary) but slightly higher level, and they also coped with it very well even though it was their first introduction to it.

One reason I like this activity is because – being an old-fashioned girl – I do love ‘proper grammar’ and this activity practices parts of speech in a really fun and engaging way. It’s great for co-operation and the social skills of negotiating and reaching agreement, as well as providing opportunity for peer teaching, and I also like the way there was a tangible product for the students to take home and show parents.

The downside is that it requires a bit more prep time/materials creation than some other activities. There are books of pre-created stories you can buy or download but I suspect it would take me just as long to find one that was at a suitable language level/on a topic I thought was suitable as it would to write one of my own.

Activity Name: Mad Libs

Language Focus: Parts of Speech
Skills Focus: Writing, Reading, Speaking
Suitable For:
Materials or Resources: ‘Gapped story’ (one per student) and word list (one per group) handouts.

image taken from via google search licensed for non-commercial reuse

image taken from via google search licensed for non-commercial reuse


This activity should, of course, follow on from a lesson or series of lessons practising parts of speech.

You may find that some children know this game, but certainly in my Arabic context none did. Introduce the activity by telling students they are going to work in teams to write a very special story.

Arrange the students in whatever group size and combination works best for you. I don’t recommend groups of more than four, however, or some students won’t participate enough. It’s up to you how you want to arrange the stronger and weaker students – I like to mix my groups up so there can be peer teaching and support but beware the very dominant personalities!

Explain that they will start by making a list of very special words. These words will make their story unique and different to the other groups. Hand out the word list (one per group). This should consist of numbered spaces – 20 is probably enough or the activity will take too long, maybe only 10/15 for a low level – each with the required part of speech listed next to it, with some kind of clue to ensure the story doesn’t get too surreal, e.g.:

1. _______ (girl’s name)
2. _______ (plural noun; something you eat)
3. _______ (action verb ; infinitive form)
4. _______ (adjective; colour)
5. _______ (singular noun; something you wear)

Go through the first few numbers with the whole class in lock-step, eliciting suggestions for each and giving the groups time to choose and write down their own answer. Once learners are confident with what to do, allow them to finish their lists together while you go round and monitor and offer support where required.

Once lists are complete, hand out the gapped story (one per student so everyone has one to take home) and instruct learners to transfer the words to the correspondingly numbered spaces. They should then end up with something like this:

Katie woke up feeling very sick, because she had eaten so many chocolate cakes the night before. “Oh well,” she said, “It’s time to dance!”. She got up and put on her red dress.

Of course, the story you give them can be one inspired by whatever topic or theme you’ve been using in class. The more comical or fantastical the better! I used a story with a superhero theme, as the lesson I was using it for was during our “Superhero Weekend” celebrating our first year as a teaching centre (see more in another post).

Once the words are transferred, allow students time to read their story together and then invite them to read it to the class. Ensure each group member does some of the speaking, of course! You can follow this with a group discussion of which story was funniest, saddest, craziest etcetera.

I’m definitely planning to do this again with other classes and I think it could be something that would even fit in well with a unit on story telling that I’ve been putting together for my intermediate adults!

ILL mini-update

Quick update – the proposal has been submitted to TESOL Arabia. We applied for internal funding from our region and were first reserve – both exciting and infuriating! I hate being in the position of hoping someone else doesn’t get accepted  or can’t get a visa or has some other problem arise.

There’s a still a chance of funding at the country-level, but we won’t know about that until after TESOL Arabia reject the proposal (in which case it won’t matter) or accept it.

Even-Minier Update 1/12/14: TESOL accepted the proposal. Now we just have to try and sort out funding!

Spelling Survivor

This is an activity I recently found online and tried with three different Primary classes. (They were all the same age, but two different ability levels.) I simplified it somewhat as I found it on a site aimed at teachers in the US and I wanted to make it lighter on materials and easier to set up.

I’m blogging about it even though it’s not that unique an idea because I was really surprised at how well it was received by my learners. I genuinely thought they wouldn’t like it that much. The higher level class have requested it again tomorrow. I may try a refinement to it to see if it can work with teams, to increase the participation from each learner.

One reason I liked this game was not just the focus on spelling but also the way it helps to develop what I think of as ‘social listening’ skills – the ability to be quiet when someone else is speaking, and to wait your turn before answering. It’s also great for exercising the memory muscles, too!

Activity Name: Spelling Survivor

Language Focus: Any vocabulary you want to revise
Skills Focus: Spelling and Listening
Suitable For:
Materials or Resources: None

image taken from en. via google search licensed for non-commercial reuse


If you’re teaching in a country where the TV show “Survivor” is known, that makes a great entry point. If not, other shows like X-factor or Arab Idol etc. can do a great job of explaining the concept of “survivor” as the last person still in the game at the end.

Set up the activity by explaining that the students must spell the words, but that they aren’t spelling the whole word; they must give only one letter. Then the next person will give the next letter, and so on. Because I wanted to focus on listening as well as spelling, I spent a long time checking that they understood they would only be able to give the correct letter if they listened very carefully to all the other learners. I also checked with them that they would therefore have to be very quiet to make sure everybody could hear.

Either number the students or, space permitting, arrange them in a line. Announce the word that is to be spelled, and give the first letter yourself. If you have a classroom assistant, using him/her to then give the second letter can really help clarify how the game works. If you’re able (and sneaky enough) to make sure the first few students are some of the stronger ones, that’s also handy.

Carry on with the spelling letter by letter. Students who get a letter wrong must sit down. It’s probably fairest to take the first word as a “practice” and allow anyone who had to sit down to stand back up and then start the “real game”. Then just keep giving words until you only have one child left: the Spelling Survivor.

Once the learners are confident, keep it pacey by eliminating people who take too much thinking time. This means you can probably play several rounds. I like to do this so I have more than one winner. Give all the winners stickers or whatever other rewards your classroom management system uses.

Once you’ve had a few goes at the game with you giving the vocabulary to be spelled, you can also try allowing the student who gives the last letter of one word to say the next word to be spelled. It’s important to give them parameters for this choice, however – e.g. “a word from chapter 3” or “a word we all wrote down last lesson”.

As I said above, I’d like to try to find a way to make this a team game. Otherwise with big classes, it can limit the amount of participation you get per child. I also like a variant I found online here where the last student also has to provide a definition. That might make this more challenging for higher level or slightly older students.

P.S. It was a toss-up between Destiny’s Child and Gloria Gaynor for the image that comes with this post…