Walk-Around Street Directions

Nic Farrow, Bunkyo Women's University, Nice Eikai Wa

Quick Guide

  • Key Words: Giving and following directions
  • Learner English Level: Elementary and above
  • Learner Maturity Level: Junior high school to adult
  • Preparation Time: First time, 2 hours. Before each lesson thereafter, 10 minutes.
  • Activity Time: 30-90 minutes, depending on class size.
  • Materials: Computer and printer, A4 paper, 40-50 A5 cards.

If you work in a dreary traditional classroom with all the desks in rows facing the front, here is a chance to make it all work in your favor. By using the desks to represent city blocks, and the rows between for streets, you can give an extra twist of fun, challenge, and get one step closer to reality by running your "giving directions" lesson as a stand-up, walk-around task. This approach adds an extra dimension (literally) to a textbook lesson/map, and can be easily adjusted according to the linguistic ability of your students. The following plan works on the assumption that your students have already received a solid base of instruction on, and some practice in, giving and receiving directions, and that you, the teacher, have determined the level of linguistic difficulty you want them to work with. This lesson does require preparation, but it is worth it, and it can be used year after year.


Step 1: Design the map you wish to create with your desks on A4 paper. Decide on at least a 3-by-3 block plan, naming your streets and avenues. Hint: If you use numbers for the road names, use higher numbers so that students won't confuse the third street with Third Street.

Step 2: Mark in at least twenty locations on the map with squares to represent buildings scattered throughout your blocks, printing the names in. Highlight a dozen or so extra locations as visible landmarks, such as: a fire hall, a school, a familiar family restaurant. It also helps (well, actually it hinders, but that's the idea. . .) to strew a number of dummy squares around, or the task becomes too easy. The students giving directions will be looking at copies of this map, so it needs to be clear. Your map will look similar to the diagram of the classroom in Figure 1, but with every location except the dummies clearly printed.

Step 3: Get 30 A5 or postcard-size cards. Use a thick marker (or your printer) to write names of imaginary or familiar stores, restaurants, clinics, etc., on most of the cards. Keep some blank ones to match the dummy locations on your map. Here are some suggested target locations: hotels, an airline office, a department store, restaurants and bars., a language school, a video rental store, a pharmacy, banks, and a library. I increase difficulty for higher-level students by using similar names for locations, such as the Helton and the Hilton hotels.

Step 4: Finally, you need to make street name signs. I make these on the A5 or postcard-size cards, using my computer drawing program. I print, for example, 13th St., and copy and paste it immediately below, flipping the new one over 180 degrees so they are top to top. Print, fold tent-like, and it will stand nicely on a desk edge to identify the street.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Classroom street grid

Your classroom might look something like Figure 1. White squares represent landmarks with visible names, gray squares are the target locations, and the short lines are the folded street names, standing at strategic locations.


Step 1: The biggest challenge is to set things up without losing time. You need all those desks and locations laid out exactly according to your map, but you don't want the students to know where things are! Better just to get there 5 minutes early and do it yourself. The target locations are placed face down, according to your map, while the highlighted landmarks are face up for reference, and the street name signs are located strategically for visibility.

Step 2: Once you are set up, get the students together at the front of the class and determine clear starting points. (In the diagram I have suggested the simplest, from the front.) Determine your group system, and provide one map per group. One person per group can then be the police officer and others ask directions. You can either write destinations on the board, or give the individual students' destinations verbally. The latter approach is good if you want to vary the challenge level for individuals.

A simple dialogue might go like this, perhaps with some additional back channeling:

  • Tourist: Excuse me, officer. Could you tell me how to get to the Hilton Hotel?
  • Police Officer: Sure, Miss. Go up this street to Ninth Avenue and turn left. Go past Kennedy Hospital and you'll see it on the right. It's across from the high school.
  • Tourist: Thank you.

For less experienced speakers, I have found it better to keep to a limited range of clear directions at first, adding alternatives and additional prepositions of place later.

Variations and Evaluation

This lesson suggests many possibilities. You can determine the level of difficulty and the linguistic challenge in advance, having weaker students ask for nearer locations, or allowing them to make notes. Stronger students may be required to remember the entire sequence at once, and you may forbid the use of gestures, or shouting across the room, when students get lost. You can even shove two desks together to lengthen a block, (that needs to correspond to your map, though), or set up a traffic accident or perhaps a street festival to force a circuitous route.

One way to liven up the lesson, and add a challenging dimension, is to have the students who are giving directions go outside the classroom with the maps and give directions by cell phone. This way, they can no longer point or wave, and there is a financial incentive to get it right the first time: they save on their phone bills! You can have at least two pairs active at any time starting at different points, and there is less interference between pairs' communication.

Evaluation of the lesson and the students' performance is pretty easy--just see how effectively they reach their destinations. This activity also provides an immediate sense of self-evaluation for the students. Finally, for utter havoc, and if class size permits, you can make the activity into a kind of relay race, with a designated number of locations to be found in order.

That's it. You make all the other procedural decisions according to the needs of your learners.