Increasing Student Awareness and Motivation Through Fish and Chips

Page No.: 
Michael G. Cholewinski, Nagoya Trident School of Languages


Key Words:Speaking
Learner English Level:All levels
Learner Maturity Level:Jr. High - Adult
Preparation Time:None
Activity Time:30-60 minutes


(*Fish and Chips is the author's adaptation of an activity called Fishbowl.)

How many times have you heard from students in conversation classes, "It's difficult to speak because I'm shy." Or, "I can't speak because I don't have enough vocabulary to say what I want to say."? I think it's fair to say that most teachers who have taught ESL in Japan have heard such statements, and are all too familiar with the difficulties silence and reticence can create in class. Such statements about speaking English, however, should not be hastily dismissed as idle excuses, as they often reflect genuine affective barriers. In many cases, these barriers result from Japanese students' learning styles, which have been ingrained over many years. Simply dismissing excuses as trivial, or by coercing students to speak through grades, tests, or other pressure tactics is unsupportive and perhaps even detrimental to their attempts to acquire English. What is needed are supportive activities that focus student attention toward dealing with these cultural hindrances, that enhance self-initiated conversations and self-governed turn-taking, and that help students cope with peer scrutiny.

This fun and challenging conversation activity called "Fish and Chips" offers just that. Fish and Chips provides students with an amazing amount of opportunities to speak, to increase their awareness about the cultural hindrances blocking language growth, while allowing for a natural introduction of strategies to utilize that awareness. With Fish and Chips, teachers can expect to increase not only their students' disposition to use English more freely but their English proficiency as well. And what's more, it's fun!

Preparation and Procedure

Fish and Chips works well at all student levels, and is best suited as an extension activity to a unit or larger topic. The only material needed are a couple of boxes of poker chips and a classroom with chairs and white/blackboard. I've found that it is most effective to draw Figure 1 below on the board and refer to it as I explain the steps of the activity.

  • First, arrange the chairs in two concentric circles facing in, with no vacant seats. Preferably have all positions taken voluntarily. The ratio of outer to inner students is not fixed, but 2-to-1 works well. Place a table in the center on which to put the supply of chips.
  • Next, explain that the main goal of Fish and Chips is to collect as many chips as possible, but that the only way to get a chip is to speak in English.
  • Third, explain that the only place one can get chips is in the inner circle, as only those individuals have the freedom to speak. Those in the outer circle must remain silent (though be flexible and allow a little whispering). Each time a student speaks (asks or answers a question or makes a statement) he can take a chip from the supply in the center. Each turn in an exchange is worth one chip. Even a quick exchange of "Hi's" garners each student a chip, one for each "Hi."

  • Tell students that if individuals from the outer circle wish to get chips, they must take the initiative to stand up, tap any inner circle member, and change seats (non-negotiable act). I've found that it takes a bit of subtle coaxing at first to get this going. Conversely, individuals in the inner circle cannot leave until nominated by someone from the outer circle. Once in the center, students are free to join or start any conversation, and begin gathering chips. As the point of the activity is to get students to overcome their reticence to speak, students reward themselves with a chip for any English utterance, no matter how trivial it may seem.
  • Stress that politeness is not a virtue in this activity, but getting chips is. Encourage students to be a little selfish and think of themselves and their own chip count when moving from the outer to inner circle. This often means interrupting conversations. Students handle this remarkably well, and the exchange often becomes comical, which helps to reduce the tension.
  • To keep a steady supply of chips in the center and to stimulate competition, once students acquire 15 chips, they return them to the chip tray. Then those students write their names and chip-counts on the board, after which they can continue with the game. Once other students see this happen once or twice, they manage it by themselves very well.
  • Make it clear to students that there are no rewards or punitive measures for participation or non-participation. Individuals are free to do as they please, as long as they follow the stated rules. This includes staying silent in the outer circle, though you'll find that most, if not all, will be drawn into the game at some point.
  • Depending upon student level, participation, time availability, teacher goals, or student interest, the activity can run from thirty minutes to over an hour.

While it is difficult, be extra patient the first time out with this activity. Usually, during the early stages there are many periods of awkward silence. Let the tension build, for it is the driving force in the activity. It may seem that very little is happening during this time, though in fact much is, as individuals are building up the courage to move or speak or formulate something to say. With some modeling by the teacher, students can see how very simple exchanges can garner two individuals many chips. It doesn't take long before students in the outer circle start working together through whispers and eye-contact to make concerted moves into the center, where they can begin conversing to get chips.

Also, it is often the case that students take advantage of the chance to change seats and exchange simple greetings over and over again, creating a mini state of pandemonium in their bid to get chips. This is a natural reaction to a natural situation. The students are simply unsure, tense, and nervous. Have patience, and this will run its course. In time, students will settle into more measured exchanges.


This activity creates a lot of tension and is very challenging, perhaps especially so for Japanese students. Self-initiated conversations, self-governed turn-taking, and constant peer scrutiny clashes with much that is culturally and educationally ingrained within them. I routinely stop the activity (or wait until the end) to touch bases with the students on these issues.

As the aspect of public performance seems to be most intimidating to them, I remind them of the simple, though often overlooked, fact that one can concentrate on doing only one thing at a time. I tell students that if they are self-conscious about being observed by their peers, the easiest and most productive way to "escape" this feeling is to focus on what they want to say. My students were delighted to find that this worked, that once they "got into" a conversation exchange their peers miraculously "disappeared" from their thinking. Granted, it is a strategy with only temporary results, but results that can have wonderful long-term conditioning benefits for reticent speakers, once incorporated into their repertoire of communication strategies.

I also bring to students' attention the brevity of the exchanges that have taken place to a certain point in the activity. I point out that most have been very short and simple, yet they have produced many chips. Students soon realize that a limited vocabulary does not necessarily limit the production of worthwhile English. Moreover, as students have ample opportunities to hear new English words and phrases from each other, I encourage them to steal, mimic, or ask for clarification, as soon and as often as possible, as a means of enlarging their own vocabulary as well as getting more chips. Students very quickly realize they have the means to deal with shyness or reticence, and gain self-assurance each time they initiate those means. Subsequent language activities have shown me that my students have embraced this understanding and have expanded their confidence as well as their English skills. This is student empowerment at its best.

I have experienced nothing but positive results from this activity. My students have told me in various forms of feedback that, while very challenging, this activity and our discussions about it have helped them increase their confidence and willingness to speak. I believe that by using Fish and Chips you, too, can help your students to learn more effectively.