Cards only know: How to call on students

Takeshi Ishikawa, Rikkyo University


Quick guide

  • Key words:Classroom management, calling on students, rapport
  • Leaner English level: All
  • Learner maturity: Junior high school and above
  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  • Activity time:It depends on the teacher
  • Materials:Deck of cards, class list or seat order


Calling on students randomly is not always an easy move. While you are nonchalantly selecting students, your students might think that you are choosing them with specific intention. Here is one idea about how to call on students randomly that does not make students uncomfortable. Nobody, including you, knows who will be called on next. In addition to that, it might even be you, the teacher, that will be chosen and have to answer the question. To implement this method, it is desirable that the teacher and the students have a good rapport. Also, it is better if the class has a fixed seat order list, but this is not necessary.


Step 1:Get hold of a deck of cards and something to hold a card up in a vertical position so that every student can see it.

Step 2:Prepare a seating list or a roll book. Assign every student with a different “code name” with a number and a suit (e.g. Ace of Hearts is for Taro Yamada). Be careful to divide numbers equally so that the same number is shared by multiple students. For example, if you have a class of 20 students, one way to assign cards is as follows:

D: A2345

S: A2345

H: A2345

C: A2345

  (D→Diamonds, S→Spades, H→Hearts, C→Clubs)

It might sound oversensitive, but I select popular cards like Jack, Queen, King and avoid using 4 and 9 which some Japanese find ominous. I also assign Jacks and Kings to boys and Queens to girls.


Step 1:Explain to students why you are using a deck of cards to avoid the impression that you are just playing pranks.

Step 2:Assign each student a “code name” and tell them to remember it.

Step 3:Tell students how things will be done: “After shuffling, I pick out a card and call it out in English. (Here, you can give a short lecture on how to read cards in English.) Okay. Let me give you a demonstration. (Pick out a card.) Jack of Diamonds! Who is it? (Hiroko raises her hand.) Okay, Hiroko. Then, you are the person who is going to answer the question. Now, there are some rules to remember. Rule one: You have three seconds to raise your hand. If you fail to do it, you will have to answer two questions instead of one. Rule two: If the person cannot answer the question, the right to respond shifts to another person with the same number (in this case, Jack of Spades, Jack of Hearts, or Jack of Clubs) or sometimes the same suit (in this case, Diamonds).”

Step 4: Tell the students that your card is also included in the deck to be fair. If it is picked out, the teacher has to answer the question. The author uses the Joker as the teacher’s card.


Cards also help students make pairs or groups of four, and in this case you do not have to make a list. This is done as follows: Distribute cards to students, who then look for students with the same numbers and make a group/pair. After telling the students to remember the cards, the teacher collects, shuffles, and selects from them. Assigning each suit a specific role (e.g., a Diamond is the presenter) can help increase the morale of the team. If the class has fixed groups/pairs, the teacher can give each group one card, and call on a pair or group as a whole. This reduces the time needed for distributing and collecting cards.


From my experience, using playing cards itself can lower the affective filter of the students, help to create a good classroom atmosphere, and enhance classroom management.