Pass It On: A Flexible Activity

Stu Ruttan, Hiroshima Suzugamine Women's College


  • Key Words: Student Interaction, Consolidation Activity
  • Learner English Level: All levels
  • Learner Maturity Level: Jr. High - Adult
  • Preparation Time: 15 minutes
  • Activity Time: Varies

The following activity helps students learn language and content while actively involving them in speaking English. In addition, it is flexible enough to be accommodated in a variety of courses. Using words or phrases on index cards, student pairings, and 10 - 15 minutes of class time, the teacher can both observe and evaluate how the students are performing with respect to the course materials and their language skills, and instill in the students a certain responsibility to communicate with their classmates. I describe below the general procedure of the activity, followed by variations of it for reading, writing, and discussion courses.

General Procedure

Prepare index cards by writing key words or phrases, one per card, which are important to the topic being studied in a particular course. You will need enough cards for half of the class as this activity is best done in pairs. Gather the students and have them stand in a group, or two groups if you have more than thirty students. Next, give half of the students one card each. Instruct all students that a student with a card will join one without a card. The partners read the word or phrase and then try to talk about it as much as they are able in English. I ask students to consider questions such as the following: What does the word or phrase mean? How did we use it when we studied the topic? What does this word make you think of about the topic? Can you remember any details or important information? (I usually write questions like these on the board.) A two minute time limit per card is wise because it keeps the students focused. Next, tell the students that first had the cards to give it to their partners. The student that receives the card then finds another partner without a card and begins to talk. Repeat this activity a number of times until the students have had a chance to talk about most of the cards.

In a Short Story Reading Course

Level: Beginner to Intermediate

The purposes of the activity that follows are to develop vocabulary understanding and reading comprehension. After assigning one or two chapters of a story, I want the students to talk and think about the important vocabulary and sections. I prefer my reading classes to be quite oral so that I can quickly assess how well the students are understanding the material. Additionally, I believe that in beginner to intermediate levels oral activities increase confidence in students as they experience their reading, when, for instance, each comes to realize that others share their struggles to understand the story.

I like to begin class with the activity outlined in the "General Procedure" above, as it gets the students on task, focusing on the story; key words, new vocabulary, and phrases from the story are useful topics for the cards. To gauge how the students are doing with the reading materials, I walk around and listen in on the students and assist them if they are really struggling with pronunciation, expression and understanding, and if they have any questions. However, I try to stay out of the communication process and allow the students to talk, in English, as freely as possible.

In a Writing Class

Level: all

I have used this activity with all levels of students in various writing course contexts, but it is especially useful in content courses as a way of generating ideas for students to write about and write with. On a set of cards (e.g., one set = 10 cards for 20 students) I write composition topics or themes that are related to the content and genre of writing I wish my students to produce. For example, if the focus is personal writing, then topics could include "your family" or "your high school life." Usually, the number of topics is smaller than the number of students, so the same topic may be written on two or three different cards. One slight change from the general procedure is that students take notes on a piece of paper as they share ideas with their partner. You will need to allow some extra time for note-taking. Also, I encourage students to think positively about repeating discussion about a topic since each person may have different ideas, and they might be helping each other gain new perspectives. This is an excellent opportunity to talk with higher level students about how different interpretations of ideas is encouraged in writing. Thus, the activity of sharing the cards can act not only as a communicative activity, but also as a great opportunity to talk with the students about the importance of having ones own ideas and perspectives in writing.

In a Discussion Skills Course

Level: High-beginner to Lower Advanced

In a discussion course, students need to learn a variety of language strategies, such as asking for agreement. Along with these strategies are particular phrases and vocabulary that must be studied, for example gambits like "Don't you agree?". To assist the students in remembering the gambits, I write various strategies such as "Asking for Opinions" or "Interrupting" on cards. Using the general procedure described above, I then ask the students to try to recall as many gambits as possible with their partner by instructing them to think about the following: "Can you understand the strategy? What are some examples of this strategy? Can you use the examples in different sentences?" Additionally, I stress that they need to know when a particular word or phrase is used. Therefore, I ask them to try to talk about when a particular gambit is used in a discussion. Obviously, this last activity is quite difficult as I am asking my students to talk about usage. However, even by considering the language and its uses without being able to articulate their ideas in English, they involve themselves in language learning processes.


"Pass It On" remains a fixture in my repertoire of activities. Though this article has outlined only three language learning contexts, the general procedure can be used in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes. You may, for instance, wish to treat it as a pure language activity, such as improving vocabulary skills, or you may want to observe how students in a new class will interact. "Pass It On" can be applied in a range of language learning situations and course contexts, from beginning students to more advanced, and at any time in a particular class. I often find that the students enjoy this activity and it really does help them understand what they know and what they do not know.