Revitalizing large classes

Daniel Teuber, Bukkyo University


Quick guide

  • Keywords: Vocabulary, team games, motivation
  • Learner English level: Beginner to advanced
  • Learner maturity: Elementary to university
  • Preparation time: Under 5 minutes
  • Activity time: 5-10 minutes
  • Materials: Chalkboard and chalk

Whether teaching at an elementary school or a university, keeping students attentive during a lesson is often a challenge. This quick and enjoyable game energizes students and can also be used as a warm-up to a vocabulary or grammar lesson. While I find it particularly useful with university classes of around 40 students, it can be used with students at every level and for every class size.

None necessary, although for Variation 2 (see below), the teacher may need to make a word list.

Step 1: Divide students into teams by column, from the front of the class to the back. The teams do not need to be the same size, but take note of the number of students in the largest team.
Step 2: Draw vertical lines on the chalkboard so that each team is sitting in front of one column section of the chalkboard assuming that it extends across the width of the classroom.
Step 3: Starting at the top of the first chalkboard section and working your way down, write an English word or phrase, one letter per line. Repeat with each section, copying the word or phrase from the first section. Choose any expression you like, but make sure that there are at least as many letters as there are students on the largest team. For example, writing L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E-S will allow you to play this game for teams of nine members or fewer. For this step, refer to the other interesting variations at the end of this activity.
Step 4: Give a piece of chalk to the first member of each team (the students sitting in the front row). These students go quickly up to their section of the board and, next to the letter at the top of board, write an English word beginning with that letter. They then hand off their piece of chalk to the next student on their team, and so on until each letter is used. If every player on the team has written a word and there are still letters on the board, the last player should then hand the piece of chalk to the first player.  Usually, the team that finishes first wins, but the teacher may decide on a winner based on other means (see Variation 3 below).

Set a minimum word length (4 or 5 letters is usually fine), and watch to make sure the same word isn’t used twice anywhere on the board. If a student writes a word that is already on the board, the teacher should tell that student to come up with another word. These two rules alone increase the difficulty and add to the interest of the game.

Variation 1: Instead of writing a word or phrase on the board, simply write numbers, from 1 to 10 (or 1 to the number of students on the largest team). Then give the students a category (uncountable nouns, names of countries, etc.) and simply have students write suitable words next to the numbers. This variation allows you to connect the activity with the lesson plan and can serve as a nice vocabulary warmup.
Variation 2: For each group, the teacher writes on the blackboard a different list of irregular verbs in their base form. Students write down the past form or the past participle form of the verbs next to the base form.
Variation 3:  The teacher tells the students before the game that the winner will be the team who comes up with the most interesting words as decided by the teacher.

This easy-to-prepare activity is especially suitable for those times when students begin to lose interest during a class. I have also found that students often try to show off their vocabulary by coming up with difficult words. These words, if unknown to most of the class, spark interest and provide the teacher opportunities to teach new language.