chainsaw juggler

This zero preparation activity requires no materials either, so you might feel relieved there is no need to have a set of chainsaws or to juggle for that matter.

A few days ago I happened to be working on a double-page spread from the adopted textbook headed “Are you a risk taker?” So before diving into the textbook material, I decided to give my students this warmer activity: Can you think of risky actions starting with the first letter of your name? Jorge seemed to come up with the class favourite answer: juggling chainsaws! My answer was “driving under the influence”. So we could be using this activity for any discussion issue of your choice, such as:

  • Things to spend your pocket money on
  • Ways of cooking food
  • Irritating things
  • Ways to cheat in an exam
  • Things to do while visiting a city

It also occurred to me that we could use this idea to explore word collocations as well. So we could focus on a word and see if the students may come up with collocates starting with the first letter of their names.  Then we can open online collocation tools or dictionaries such as just-the-word or the Oxford Collocation Dictionary and check (read this very useful post on lexical tools from Leo Selivan’s blog Leoxicon) As this post is nearing its end, can you think of collocates for the word “end” starting with the first letter of your name? I got two with mine: “dead end” and “draw to an end”.

mannequin challenge

I guess I should spare you from explaining what a mannequin challenge is. Whether you love it or loathe it; whether you have ever been lured into posing for one or not, it might still be a fun thing to try in the classroom. “A mannequin challenge?”, I hear you say.

Write “mannequin challenge” on the board and ask your students to generate questions they may think of using these two words (if they can’t think of any or a few, you can write the questions yourself. For low level classes, it’s ok for the students to give you their questions in their L1 language, then you can simply translate and write on the board).

  • What is a mannequin challenge?
  • Have you ever taken part in one?
  • If not, would you like to?
  • What is the title of the song that is usually played with mannequin challenges?
  • Do you like mannequin challenges? Why? / Why not?

Play the video below and then ask the students to write down as many different actions as they remember from it by using the present/past continuous (whichever verb tense you would like them to practice).

If you are ok with recording a video of your students, they can pose “performing an action” and then you can record a video and then play for them to tell you what everyone is doing. If you can’t or won’t record a video you can still tell half your class to pose for a minute or so for the rest of the students to tell each other what everyone is doing and then they can switch roles. You may narrow this down and give them a topic, such as sports and then they have to “perform” playing a sport. Or house chores (ironing, doing the dishes, hoovering, dusting, etc.). Or jobs (a mechanic, a teacher, a bus driver, a hairdresser, etc.). What other suitable topics can you think of? Do you see yourself trying this out in your lessons? Are you up to the challenge?


I am a big fan of lists and ordering things. I think they offer lots of opportunities for discussion, interaction and critical thinking in the language classroom. Today I would like to focus on ranking sets of items. The ideal platform for this procedure is an interactive whiteboard, if you have one, but there are other round around ways in which you can engage your learners in physically ranking words and expressions or images.

The best fruit. I learned this activity from Andrew Wright’s Pictures for Language Learning, Cambridge University Press, 1989. Moving with the -digital- times and far from being an accomplished artist, I just resort to copying and pasting images from the Internet.


After reviewing these words with the students and working on accurate pronunciation, open a blank page on the board and ask them to write down as many fruits that they saw on the board as they remember.

And now comes the ranking bit. Show the fruits again. If you are using interactive whiteboard software and you have copied and pasted the images as separate items, you should be able to drag them separately. Tell the students to arrange the fruits:

by roundness / the five most expensive fruits / the five cheapest fruits / the five biggest fruits / the five smallest fruits / the five heaviest fruits / the five sweetest fruits / five fruits that grow in your region / the five most exotic fruits / the most difficult to spell / the most difficult to pronounce / the most difficult to learn / five fruits you like the best / the ones you would take on a school trip

You don’t have to cover all these criteria, just choose four or five. Invite the students to come up to the board and drag the images in order.

You may simply decide to type the words for the fruits on the board instead of using images if you want to set up the activity in about a minute.

You may want to set up groups of students and distribute blank cards or pieces of papers for them to write the words on them and then shift the cards around on the desks as they rank them. Dictate the words prior to that. It makes a perfect dictation.

Other possible lexical sets that present themselves well for this type of ranking might be: jobs, school subjects, food, sports, body parts, hobbies, types of TV programmes, films, books, music, colours, clothes, new technologies, furniture, places in town, social networking sites, things to spend money on. What kind of criteria would you establish for them? Better still, once the students get acquainted with this way of drilling vocabulary, supply a couple of criteria and let them figure out other ways in which those words might be ranked. It all boils down to drilling vocabulary when you think about it. However, that’s not the message we want to send the students. They don’t need to know. Drilling might be done in mind-numbing ways or in “invisible” engaging ways.

In addition to providing vocabulary consolidation, ranking can also be used to prompt interesting discussions.


Possible criteria: your favourite type of holiday / the most relaxing / the most tiring / the most expensive / the ones you have never experienced / the ones you have experienced / the ones with lesser ecological footprint / the most popular in your country / the most romantic.

In addition to providing criteria, use the photos as a springboard for conversation by asking relevant questions, such as:  Why do you think staying in a caravan is more romantic than staying at a bed and breakfast? So you went camping last summer, how did it go? Did you have a good time? Was there anything that you didn’t like about sleeping in a tent? etc.

This last idea is an adaptation from my book From Whiteboards to Web 2.0, Helbling Languages, 2015 (click here for more information about the book).

question words

Here is a very straightforward way of exploiting a video from the Internet. It works best with short news stories like the one used as an example. Keeping the KIS spirit, it does not require any preparation from the teacher, other than finding and playing the video.

Tell the students that the are going to watch a short video. As they watch, each student must write down three questions for the video to test understanding. One question should be about something being said towards the beginning, another question should be written down about something from the middle and a third question about something being said towards the end. They must start their questions with a question word (who, where, when, why, what, which, how). These are some possible questions for the video below:

  • How old is he?
  • What’s his name?
  • Where is he from?
  • When did he start to play the piano?
  • How many classical pieces has he written?
  • Where can he hear melodies?
  • When did he start composing?
  • What does his teacher say about him?
  • How does his father feel?
  • What is his dream?
  • Who are his biggest fans?
  • What are the birds names?

For very low level classes, tell the students that they can write questions for what they see on the screen (What instrument is he playing, what is he wearing, how many people do we see in the video, etc.).

The beauty of this type of video exploitation is that the same video can be used for all language levels really. The lower the level, the more this becomes a speaking activity that keeps the students talking about what they see using the vocabulary they know. The higher the level, the more this becomes a listening activity. There are very crystal clear words and expressions that the students will identify in this video and there are some others that require a deeper level of competency. The difficulty of listening activities lies more on the task itself than on the language.

This type of video exploitation also keeps the students work on grammar and question making. Two for the price of one.

You may tell your students to get into groups (for ideas on grouping students you may want to check my post on grouping students), give each student three strips of paper and, once they watch the video and write their questions, they can place them on their desks for everyone in the group to see, discard the questions that are the same, and try to peer edit the possible errors they may spot). Walk around and check possible errors yourself. Then play the video a second time for the students to write answers for the questions.

And here is Shane Thomas’ website, if you want to listen to his inspiring music. What a talented young guy he is!!

smartphones 1

There are many ways in which smartphones can be used in the language classroom -if they are allowed at all! Here I will focus on how we can take advantage of the camera tool to take photos in the classroom in order to be able to see things more clearly or more in detail or to move at different paces or simply for time efficiency purposes or to save paper.

  • Instead of printing copies of answer sheets for textbook or workbook grammar activities, show the students the page with the answers from the teacher’s book and they can simply take of photo of it (in most cases it will be a portion of a page).
  • If you write questions on the board (or display them) for a listening passage that you are about to play, tell the students to take a photo of the board and they can look at their phone while they answer the questions. It saves time and makes the students be on task right away. However, if there aren’t many questions, it might be a better idea altogether to simply read out the questions for the students to take them down. This implies spending more time but it also engages the students in an extra listening/dictation activity.
  • If you are displaying a photo on the board for group discussion, there might be a glare or the data projector might have seen better days and then some students might not be able to get a proper view of things (specially those sitting at the back or on the sides). Invite them to come up to the front, take a photo and go back to their seats. That way they will be able to zoom in and notice details.
  • Homework assignments. Tell the students to take of photo of the homework assignments that you have on the board for them. You may also create a qr code for them. Here is a video with 11 ideas for using qr codes in the classroom.

  • If you have conversation questions on the board, again let the students take a photo. That way you will be making room for board annotations or to display something else. The students can simply read the questions from the phone screen.

.I will be posting more ideas on how to use the phone as a camera tool shortly. I hope these ones make sense.


word challenge 2

Another word challenge actitivy that requires zero preparation from the teacher. You may also want to check out “word challenge 1“. Here the teacher will ask the students in the class to anticipate useful words and expressions on a new topic that will be discussed in class the following day. Let’s suppose that you are ready to introduce this topic: “work”. Then the students must look for 4 or 5 useful words and expressions each on the given topic. A good probing question might be this: “I wonder how you say “x” in English”. Ask the students to write down their words on a piece of paper at home and bring it to class next day.

Then elicit words from your students. They can call out the word/s in English or in their own native language and challenge their classmates. Write what you judge to be the most relevant words and expressions for the language level on the board (about 10-15 would should be enough). Elaborate on use of language. For example, you may want to highlight whether a verb is typically followed by a certain preposition or focus on common collocations and colligations (watch the short video below for a clear explanation of what collocations and colligations are from Sam McCarter).

Now ask the students to think of interesting conversation questions using those key words and expressions and come up to the board and write them (make any necessary corrections). At a Pre-Intermediate level, this is a possible language selection: to take time off, to apply for a job, to quit a job, flight attendant, volunteer, unemployed, a resume. It is not essential (and not always easy) that all students contribute. Give extra credit to the ones that do. You may also want to think of and add a couple of good questions yourself. For the language above, these might be good enough conversation questions for the language level:

  • Do you know how to write a good resume? Tell me about it.
  • What is good and not so good about being a flight attendant?
  • Do you know anyone who does volunteer work? Do you think you will do volunteer work one day? Why do people do volunteer work?

Can you think of good conversation questions for the remaining items?

Hopefully by looking up those words in dictionaries, having students challenge each other and finally doing something with the language through question writing and having conversations around those words, the language will stick to memory.